Suicide is almost always a desperate act by someone who feels helpless and hopeless. Suicidal feelings and thoughts are frequently symptoms of depression. We often feel shocked and sometimes disillusioned when someone we know kills herself or himself. We feel that we want to do whatever we can to prevent another such tragedy. This past month alone, there have been 6 deaths by suicide of young men who either identified as gay or were perceived to be gay: Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi, Raymond Chase, and Cody J. Barker. For most of these individuals, teasing and bullying about their sexuality is thought to have played a role in their death.
Over the past two decades, there has been a growing recognition that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth (generally defined as ages 15-24) are at an increased risk of suicide compared to other adolescents and young adults. A growing body of research literature has indicated that the rates of suicidal thoughts among LGB youth is more than three times greater than their heterosexual peers (Massachusetts Department of Education, 2006). The same survey revealed a more concerning finding: LGB high schools students were over 4 times more likely to attempt suicide. Additionally, another recent study (Grossman & D’Augelli, 2007) demonstrated that 45% of transgender youth participants had considered suicide and 26% had attempted to kill themselves.
LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk of suicide largely because of societal and developmental factors. Adolescence is when most people face the developmental tasks of finding their identity and establishing sexual/emotional intimacy in relationships. Our society fosters, nurtures, and channels these tasks for most heterosexual youth. Implicitly and explicitly, the majority of heterosexual youth have their feelings, identities, and relationships acknowledged and validated. In general, our society is more dangerous and/or neglectful for LGBTQ youth, particularly those in high school. Resources that may help them in the developmental tasks of finding identity and establishing intimacy are nonexistent in most places, scarce in others. It is dangerous because there are real threats to their emotional and physical well-being that they must try to navigate. Harassment, threats of violence, and physical/sexual assaults by peers and family are experienced by a significant number of sexual and gender minority youth. Even more common are the slurs, insults, and jokes regarding this population, which color their environment and make it difficult for them to come to love themselves and have good self-esteem. Transgender young people who are outwardly not conforming to gender norms may have a particularly difficult time due to having greater visibility but a smaller community. Not all LGBTQ youth possess the internal and external resources nor the autonomy that come with greater age to help them through these struggles with their environment. Though many sexual and gender minority youth are resilient, internalized self-hatred and the resulting pain for others contribute to a higher risk of abusing alcohol and other drugs as a means of numbing those feelings and thoughts.
There are several things that can help reduce the suicide risk factors for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. All of us can make a commitment to making their environment safer. The LGBTQ community has many straight allies, and heterosexuals who read this can do a lot. Here are some ways that you can be an ally: -Stop laughing at or ignoring the bigoted jokes and insults that are frequently made about sexual and gender minorities.
- Go a step further and confront those who make these remarks, telling them that you do not find them appropriate.
- Become involved in LGBTQ youth organizations such as the National Youth Advocacy Coalition (www.nyacyouth.org), TransYouth Family Allies (imatyfa.org), and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network (www.glsen.org).
- Additionally, you can continue your own education about all sorts of people who are different than you, not only sexual and gender minorities. Open your mind and your heart further. Communicate your caring to those around you. Support the struggles of this population to obtain the same basic civil rights you have, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – in all settings.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults who read this can remember how difficult our own experience was when young. Frequently we may want to put that behind us because of the painfulness of remembering it even still. We cannot afford to do that as too many of our youth are in those hells now. Commit or recommit yourself to being as out as you can be, being proud, and reaching out to the youth who need our support. Remember that our lives are only as good as they are because of those who came before us in this struggle. What will you do for those who come after us?
LGBTQ youth who have felt or are feeling suicidal I ask not to give in to those helpless and hopeless feelings. I know from personal experience how it can seem that things will never get better, no one will accept you for who you are, and maybe you aren't sure you like you for who you are. As someone who made it through, I can say that the fears, when kept to yourself, are worse than the reality. Look around you and find some person that you feel you can trust to tell your feelings to, someone who has expressed a caring and accepting attitude. It may be a family member or friend. It could be a professor or hall director or RA or a religious leader. If it feels too risky to speak to any of these people, contact the Counseling Center. We care and want to be a support to you. As someone who survived his own difficult gay adolescence, I want you to know that life gets better, so hold on to life and reach out for help. Also, go to the It Gets Better Channel on Youtube for supportive statements from LGBTQ adults.
Paul Cody, Ph.D.
October 12, 2010