Covering Suicide: Caution Is Warranted

Yesterday I closed with a postscript about having found media guidelines for covering suicide.

Today I followed up with a post at Pams House Blend. Here’s an excerpt:

The evidence-based answer

So, we’ve got a painful, uncomfortable, answer to the question: Suicide after bullying is not something set apart, simpler, or more easily prevented than suicide in general. In fact, while increasing awareness of bullying and suicide is helping, some of the most vulnerable in our families and communities may be harmed by the use of an oversimplified bullying-causes-suicide meme.

Here’s the full post.


Teen Suicide: Let's Talk About Causes, Effects, Risks, and Prevention

The Equality Forum issued a press release today (redactions mine):

“We need to stop the carnage of gay teen suicides,” said Malcolm Lazin, Executive Director, Equality Forum, a national LGBT civil rights organization headquartered in Philadelphia.

In October 2010, [name redacted], a Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide [redacted], brought national attention to the epidemic of gay teen suicides that resulted from bullying. It is estimated that about 500 gay teens each year or 40 gay teens per month take their lives as a result of homophobia.

They promote the passage of two bills in Congress, the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act. Excellent! Making schools safer and more fair to all is essential.

The inconvenient truth about the press release is that it doesn’t promote suicide prevention.

Full disclosure: I am not a mental health professional. Not a suicide prevention expert. I am personally invested in the subject because my partner died by suicide, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the 10 years since thinking about prevention. He was in his 40s, not a teen, but part of his despair rose from being newly out, rejected by people he trusted, and believing that being gay would mean being forever controversial. My access to the raw experience of losing a loved one doesn’t make me any smarter than anyone else, it just leaves me with a heart for people of any age who are living with despair and hopelessness.

An aside for those who are suffering: Loving Dale gave me a sense of what dark days were like. Not the complete knowledge, of course, and I don’t know what it’s like to live through extreme bullying. In the middle of really tough times, it can feel like people are only offering empty platitudes about things getting better some day. When we find ourselves living with misery, a sense of helplessness, or despair, though, relief is available here and now. The key is talking it all out with people we trust, especially family (when available) and mental health pros.

OK, back to the press release. This piece is an example of a broadly-used meme: (a) John or Jane dies by suicide; (b) Bullying was cited as the reason; (c) Thus, bullying causes suicide; and finally, by implication, (d) Ending bullying will end suicide.

We need to step back and ask mental health and suicide prevention experts whether the meme is supported by available evidence.

After Dale died, I wanted to lash out at people who had rejected him. “They need to understand the consequences of their actions,” I fumed. “They need to change.”

But, the longer I lived with the full, unvarnished truth of Dale’s life and death, the more complex it got. It wasn’t just that he had been rejected, a lot of factors had to coalesce to make his suicide possible.

(Trigger warning: If you are feeling distressed or uncomfortable reading this for any reason, feel free to walk away. I’m treading as carefully as possible in tender territory for me. My perspectives here are my source of peace and confidence that suicide can and must be prevented, but I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on all of the details. Most of all, I don’t want to cause anyone pain or harm.)

I also interacted with other SOLOS (Survivors Of a Loved One’s Suicide). Each story we shared was unique, but it struck me that none of them was simple. No matter how much we each wanted to boil things down to black-and-white answers, it didn’t seem to me that alleviating one contributing factor would have completely changed the course of events preceding their deaths. Their suicides were not inevitable, but preventing them would have involved changing multiple factors.

My sense, as a layperson, is that distorted thinking is an essential contributor to suicide.

Dale’s pain was real. Life-long dreams had slipped through his fingers. He had hopes for a good future, but he also had a long history of depression which was growing increasingly drug resistant, a crushing burden. It was reasonable for him to expect that disappointing outcomes would result from coming out further, at least occasionally.

Distorted thinking came into play, though, as well. In darker moments he believed he was a burden on me and others. He questioned whether it he would ever move beyond his guilt about divorcing after 22 years of marriage. He thought his death would serve a greater good than his life would have.

We have a cultural tradition of looking for slivers of good in the middle of bad circumstances. Everything happens for a reason, the saying goes, so we look for seeds of hope and purpose amidst devastating losses.

When it comes to suicide, though, I don’t believe that a loved one’s death ever serves a greater good than their life would have. That would be distorted, irrational thinking.

I’m concerned that I will be read as being cold, lacking empathy, blaming suicide victims, or casting a shadow on families and anti-bullying advocates here. My only intent is to encourage serious discussion, though, about how anti-bullying advocacy can best be used to promote real suicide prevention.

In that vein, I have to ask: Is it possible that the bullying-triggers-suicide meme sometimes hurts suffering teens more than it helps? As a layperson, I can’t answer definitively. But I’m concerned.

I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of a youth living with taunting and bullying. I’m guessing that I’ve mentioned it to some of my friends; my teachers have seen it happen; my parents have tried to help. But it’s been a long road, and nothing is really changing. Some days I bounce back well enough from being taunted or slammed into a wall, but then I sometimes have days of unrelenting pain that I can’t quite put into words. I just want the pain to end. I’m reading about bullying in the news, and not only are my tormentors getting away with it, many public leaders are fighting to keep the status quo.

Imprisoned in pain, my thinking growing more distorted, maybe with no access to mental health care, or a bad experience with a pastor or school counselor, I feel like I’ve got nothing left to go on. At some point, might my distorted thinking include that dying would serve a greater good? That my bullies would finally pay? At this point, I’m not thinking rationally… my head is a big jumble. It makes mottled sense to me that the whole situation is out of my hands… Circumstances are forcing me into one final act.

Stepping back into my own middle-aged life, I’m thankful for all of the anti-bullying voices out there. I’m also concerned. I hope smarter people than me — like mental health professionals and suicide prevent experts — are being asked questions like these:

  • Is the bullying-triggers-suicide meme true?
  • When people are suffering and vulnerable to self-harm, how are they affected by coverage of suicide?
  • Is there risk that vulnerable and suffering people will see suicide victims as heroes? Martyrs who have died for a cause?
  • Would it be more accurate to promote comprehensive mental health care as the path to suicide prevention?
  • Have alternate memes been tried or tested which are effective and accurate?
    • Bullying cripples, but suicide kills.
    • Bullying maims many, a few of whom die by suicide.
    • Suicide is not a rational act, but getting help is.
    • Bullying prevention happens at school; Suicide prevention happens at home, in church, in the neighborhood, and at school.

It’s crucial to honor the loved ones we’ve lost to suicide by finding purpose, energy, and resolve to eliminate bullying. And yet it’s worth doing mindfully of those who are still vulnerable and suffering.

We can think of it this way: For every youth lost to suicide, probably dozens more are still suffering under the same conditions.

Preventing suicide where bullying is a factor must focus on both eliminating the bullying (which will happen over time) and separately, distinctly, on reaching youth who are living with bullying, despair, or feeling overwhelmed and trapped for any reason now.

Postscript: Now that I’ve gotten through all of this based on my experience as a layperson, I just found a great evidence-based piece: Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Maybe I’ll follow up on this soon.


A survivor's credo

John Aravosis posted Longtime gay activist Robin Tyler on marriage and the Dems with this intro:

Robin is an old friend, she co-founded with me, and she and her wife Diane were the first gay (lesbian) couple married in LA county after marriage became legal in California last year (before it was banned).

I suspect she wrote me this email, below, in response to the news that the Democrats don’t plan on doing anything about repealing DOMA during this session of Congress (meaning, until at least January of 2011).

Here’s my re-format of Tyler’s thoughts:

No civil rights movement has ever said ‘give us less, and we will be satisfied.’No civil rights movement has ever won without the strength to keep fighting no matter what the loss or setback was at the time.

The LGBT community has survived

  • mental institutions
  • penal institutions
  • science calling us sick
  • religion calling us sinful

We have survived being thrown out of our homes, our schools, and rejected by everyone we knew.

But we found each other. And we loved each other. And we supported each other through AIDS, when no one gave a damn. And we refused to be victims.

We became survivors, and now, our resilience has made us tougher, stronger, smarter.

No, we will not back down from the losses around marriage equality, or any other civil right issue. We deserve it all, and we will not rest until we have it all. That is what a movement is.

We keep moving, forward. No retreat, not now, not ever.

Tyler encapsulates the historical credo of survivors.  She speaks to the the legacy of queer folks for fierceness, resilience, and determination against all odds.

As integral and crucial as this approach is to the achievements of LGBTQ folks, we do our community a disservice if we assume that fiery determination is built-in, a queer birthright.

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Either/Or Thinking: Therapeutic? Ethical?

Warren Throckmorton commented on-air at CNN Tuesday:

The congruence for some clients will be with their sexuality. The congruence for others will be with their religious beliefs.

Clearly, some people feel that the most core aspect of them is their sexuality.

Others, on the other hand, believe that their religious values and religious beliefs are most core, and they would rather explore congruence of their behavior with those beliefs and values.

Dr. Throckmorton has my respect for being a thoughtful, available presence at his blog. He has earned Michael Bussee’s endorsement of the sexual identity framework.

In that context, I won’t/can’t lash out in activist mode about the ache I felt when I heard him say those words. And yet, the ache remains.

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Response to PFOX Open Letter

An anonymous ex-gay writer at the PFOX MySpace blog posted an open letter:

Dear Ex-Ex Gay Organizations,

I really appreciate your concern for people like me, people you consider “ex-gays.” It’s really great to know that there are people out there that seem to want to help. According to your websites, you seem to really care for those of us who have been through the chaos and confusion of sexual identity issues.

However, your help is not wanted, nor needed.

(…the rest of the open letter)

I posted a comment in reply to the open letter which hasn’t been approved yet.
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I just threw up a new site,

The concept for it has emerged from multiple sources — my experience as a survivor of Dale, my boyfriend’s, suicide in 2000, and my admiration for the ways in which Peterson and Christine have crafted the Beyond Ex-Gay site as a place of healing and sharing of survivors’ stories.

The impetus for this is my sense that suicide-related issues play an obvious role in queer life, and yet as a community we are sometimes better at launching activism-based challenges at others than healing-based nurturing within. It’s important to me that suicide in the gay community impacts folks of all ages, not adolescents or young adults only, as Peterson described recently.

I don’t see this as an always dismal or devastating topic.

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Personal Healing: A Political Act?

Today, Peterson talks about the importance of telling our stories, highlighting what’s going on at Truth Wins Out with its short, punchy videos (the first one features Shawn O’Donnell) and at Beyond Ex-Gay with more detailed telling of people’s stories.

He closes with:

The important point is that we need to tell our own stories because once others tell them for us, the stories morph into a political message. So I encourage you, whatever journey you are on, step up and speak out.

The intersection of the personal and the political really is intriguing in this context, isn’t it?

I mentioned recently (see War or Peace?) that I see a clear distinction between healing which calls on people to be at war with themselves and healing which draws them into peaceful places where still-tender hurts can be soothed and souls can be gently nurtured.

At its heart, healing is profoundly personal. Rediscovering quiet and peaceful places within ourselves where previously there was only conflict and shame isn’t likely to happen in the midst of assertive or angry political activism. Healing of deep hurts often begins with reclaiming all that was already whole and complete, learning to be tender with ourselves, treating the wounds, and acknowledging the scars.

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Dr. Nicolosi Speaking in London

Apparently, Dr. Joseph Nicolosi, co-founder of NARTH, will speak to a faith-based group in London in June. His presentation is titled Time for Truth – Is Gay Real? and the plan is that he will “take a scientific rather than an explicitly Christian approach.”

I just wonder whether he

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War or Peace?

Peterson talks about his time as a member of the Times Square Church under pastor David Wilkerson.

In the midst of his own struggles with believing he had to choose between being gay and having God in his life he recalls:

I even spoke to a minister at the church about my struggle. To my shock he told me that he too had a similar struggle. He warned that it is a spiritual battle, one where I needed to bind the devil, do spiritual warfare and drive out the evil spirits in my life.

Years later, after emerging from his ex-gay years as an openly gay man, he asked about that minister and heard:

“Oh, didn’t you hear?” he replied, “Brother _______, moved back to _____ . Soon after he returned home, he killed himself! So awful. And such a man of God. No one knows why he would do such a thing.”

Sadly, I think I know why, knowing the weight of wickedness he sat under, wickedness heaped on him every Sunday. Perhaps it eventually crushed him.

Suicide leaves so many questions in its wake for which clear, simple answers can be elusive.

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My letter to the governor

The Love Makes a Family organization in Connecticut is encouraging folks to email Governor Rell and their statehouse reps about marriage equality with an easy-to-use page at their site.

Here’s my letter, with the personal portion highlighted:

Jan 16, 2007

Governor M. Rell
Executive Office of the Governor
State Capitol, 210 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106

Dear Governor Rell,

As your constituent, I urge you to support legislation this session giving full marriage equality to same-sex couples in Connecticut.

Civil unions provide important legal rights, but thousands of loving, committed couples–many raising children–deserve the dignity and respect that only marriage can provide.

Six years ago my 46-year-old partner died after a long battle with depression which had been compounded by fear of losing the respect of his loved ones and his community if he was honest with them about being gay.

Suicide is complex, leaving no simple cause to blame. But, one of the contributing factors in Dale’s case was the message he had gotten loud and clear: That to be gay was to be less, to be set apart.

In Dale’s name, I ask you to take a step to ensure that the state of Connecticut is not promoting the message that gay relationships are less worthy of the rights and responsibilities of marriage than others.

Please support marriage equality this session, so ALL people in Connecticut are treated equally and fairly under the law.


Steve Boese
West Hartford, CT

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