How Do You Fight A Suicide Epidemic?
Content note: This post contains discussions of bullying, abuse, and suicide.
An alarming number of gay youth have committed suicide in the United States in recent weeks. There were probably more than I listed here; there tend to be disparities in what the media does and doesn’t report. Rates of suicide and suicide attempts among queer/questioning, undecided, intersex, lesbian, trans, bi, asexual, and gay (QUILTBAG) youth are estimated at approximately one and a half to three times that of the general youth population and possibly even higher; there aren’t nearly enough studies and there’s a particular dearth of studies when it comes to trans youth and youth of colour (.pdf, sorry). My friend Kirya Traber refers to this as an ‘epidemic’ and I think that’s an appropriate word to use; if you have a population dying at a rate that stark, it’s an epidemic.
Seth Walsh was a 13 year old middle school student in California. Walsh was experiencing bullying in school, the school knew about it and did nothing, and his parents withdrew him from school, putting him on independent study. Despite not being in school, he was still bullied. He attempted to hang himself and hovered on life support for nine days before dying.
Asher Brown was 13 too, a middle school student in Texas. His parents couldn’t afford designer shoes and he was mocked for his sexuality and his clothing. On the day before his death, he was pushed down a flight of stairs at the school. His parents filed multiple claims with the school requesting action on bullying. Nothing was done. The night before he died, he seemed sad, but when his parents asked him what was wrong, he said nothing. He shot himself in the head.
Caleb Nolt was 14, a high school student in Indiana. He was a twin, and enjoyed working on building projects and baking cookies.
Billy Lucas was 15, a freshman at a high school in Indiana. Again, school officials were notified about bullying. He endured years of teasing because he was gay. On the day of his death, he started fighting back against the bullies when they harassed him in class and he was suspended for it. He hung himself in the family barn.
Harrison Chase Brown was a 15 year old Colorado high school student. He was interested in history, volunteering with local historical organisations, and he loved music and art. An organ donor, he gave his heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, and a lung after his death.
Cody J. Barker was 17, a high school student in Wisconsin. He was an activist who wanted to start a gay-straight alliance at his school despite the fact that he experienced bullying for his sexual orientation. Like me, he enjoyed watching James Bond and listening to Lady Gaga.
Felix Sacco was a 17 year old high school senior in Massachusetts. A guitar player, he was described as ‘quiet’ by many people who knew him. He threw himself from an overpass.
Tyler Clementi was an 18 year old college student at Rutgers. Classmates filmed him without consent during a sexual encounter and posted the film online. He asked for help and didn’t get it; in fact, some helpful Internet commenters even suggested that his roommate was unsafe around him because he was gay. He jumped off a bridge.
Raymond Chase, 19, was a college student in Rhode Island. He was out, proud, and enjoyed Harry Potter and dancing. Despite appearing happy on the surface to many of his friends, he hung himself in his dorm room.
These young people were all failed by the people with a responsibility to protect them. Anti-bullying campaigns repeatedly tell young people to report bullying to teachers, and tell young people who witness bullying to report it, and to speak up about it if they feel comfortable and safe doing so. In all of these cases, there were documented patterns of bullying going on, including physical assaults in some cases. Classroom disruptions. School officials were clearly aware that something was going on, and they did nothing to support the endangered students in their midst. When the core of an anti-bullying campaign is ‘report it’ and reporting it does nothing, that sends a pretty clear message to people who are experiencing bullying in schools.
Knowing that students are being abused and threatened, knowing that suicide rates are especially high among QUILTBAG youth, school districts should not be standing by. Dealing with bullying is complicated, I’m not going to deny that, but it’s clear that many of these districts provided no support for endangered youth and those youth paid a high price for it. The solution to bullying often seems to be to allow (or force) the bullied student to withdraw from school, or isolating the bullied student in other ways, rather than confronting and addressing the abusive behaviour. Or the recommendation is to suspend the bullies, which is not the right solution either.
In 1986, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said:
I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.
He was talking about the willful ignorance cultivated about concentration camps in the 1940s, pointing out that the same could be said about many ongoing human rights violations. The skyrocketing death rates among QUILTBAG youth in the United States are an epidemic. They are a human rights violation. They are an atrocity. They are a smear upon the already tattered reputation of the United States. For all the talk of freedom and equal protection under the law, youth cannot even be safe in schools.
We especially need to talk about violence against transgender youth and skyrocketing rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. The recent suicides have gotten a great deal of press coverage, which gives me hope for having a national conversation about this issue, but it’s important to avoid leaving trans folks in the cold; like many transgender people, this is a personal issue for me. While seeking out stories for this piece, I couldn’t find any news stories specifically focused on suicide among transgender youth and it’s important to be aware that our suicides are often not reported or are reported confusingly, making it hard to raise awareness and keep accurate statistics.
Youth advocates all over the United States are working with QUILTBAG youth, and many are working directly in schools. I think we need more of them, more people creating safe spaces for endangered youth, more people calling school administrations up on the carpet for their inaction, more people creating a framework for resistance to bullying in schools. It’s clear that school districts will not change from within, and that those that do want to change have no idea about how to do it; getting more advocates into schools feels like the only concrete thing I can suggest in the face of this epidemic taking my QUILTBAG siblings.
If you’re a QUILTBAG youth in need of suicide counseling, please call the Trevor Hotline: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR
The We Got Your Back Project is a new project to reach out to QUILTBAG youth that could use some support!