Given the media coverage over the past few months, it would be easy to believe that bullying is the sole driver behind suicide among gay youth. We learned about Tyler Clementi, an 18 year-old Rutgers student who jumped off of the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his roommate had streamed live video of his encounter with another man in their dorm room over the internet. His suicide was followed by stories of other teens who were harassed and bullied for being gay:
- Asher Brown, a 13 year-old bullied for being gay shot himself at his home
- Seth Walsh, a 13 year-old bullied for being gay hanged himself
- Phoebe Prince, a 15 year-old attacked with incessant gay slurs over Facebook was found dead in her home
The rate of suicide attempts is four times greater among gay youth than heterosexual teens, and media attention given to recent teen suicides has emphasized that teen bullying is the culprit. It is no secret that bullying is hugely problematic and can have lasting detrimental impacts on teens’ sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Given the developmental nature of teenage years, it can be especially difficult for youth to envision a future beyond middle school or high school, or a time when things might get better.
However, targeting bullying alone in youth suicide prevention is too simplistic. Bullying and suicide can be linked, but the relationship is more complicated than the media would have us believe. Citing this relationship alone ignores key mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, that often contribute to suicide. Numerous anti-bullying campaigns have sprung up in schools across the country as a way to address bullying among teens. Yet, mental illness, a strong risk factor for suicide, goes ignored. Schools need to broaden their focus in suicide prevention efforts.
Suicide prevention efforts should focus on mental health awareness and treatment options, in addition to how bullying can aggravate depression and increase suicide risk among youth. Teaching kids coping skills such as how to manage their emotions can impact how they respond to stressors that might be related to bullying but also family and other social difficulties. Unfortunately mental illness is still enormously stigmatized and ignored.
As a society, we have a long way to go to abolish anti-gay sentiment and greater awareness about bullying and tolerance is certainly needed. But while anti-bullying campaigns are important, broader issues of mental health and policy implications should not be forgotten.