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.


  1. Covering Suicide: Caution Is Warranted @ A Tenable Belief says:

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

Comments have been disabled.