by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The issue of LGBTQ teen suicide is a complex one. The victims are as young as 13 years old and, recently in a few Seattle-area cases, young adults. Programs are in place such as the Trevor Project, a national suicide hotline for teens in need. Video projects, like the Gay-Straight Alliance's 'Make it Better' and the 'It Gets Better' campaign, have flooded YouTube, earning national attention as top members of government (including President Obama), sports teams, and celebrities contributed messages of hope.
Yet, somehow, it is not getting better for many LGBTQ students and those perceived to be LGBTQ. Although national awareness surrounding the subject has increased, teens and young adults are still taking their own lives.
Jamey Rodemeyer, 14, of Buffalo, N.Y., killed himself over the weekend after posting an online farewell. Jamey had been picked on for the past 12 months by cyberbullies who made derogatory comments with Gay references on his Formspring account - a website that allows anonymous posts. Friends reported the bullying to guidance counselors. But everyone, including his mother, thought he had grown stronger - after all, the boy had made his very own 'It Gets Better' video in which he offered his peers words of encouragement and hope.
'Jamey's suicide is a tragic reminder of the vulnerability of Gay teens,' said Malcolm Lazin, founder and executive director of the Equality Forum, which focuses on LGBTQ civil rights and education.
'They are bullied and marginalized,' he said. 'While some may say that Jamey took his life, it is unrelenting homophobia that murdered him.'
His death coincides with a national summit on September 21-22 sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., in an effort to stem the toll of bullying on children.
OUTLoud in Washington
In Washington state, Heather Carter is hard at work trying to reach LGBTQ teens before they take the route Jamey decided to take. She runs the OUTLoud Program for the state's Youth Suicide Prevention Program. The work is admirable, yet grossly underfunded. While millions of dollars are being spent on national programs (The Trevor Project, 'It Gets Better' donations), little to none is being spent in our own backyard. The local community has already seen a number of young Gay men who've ended their lives prematurely.
'What we have learned, I believe, is that there is a connection between bullying experiences and risk for suicide and depression,' Heather told Seattle Gay News. 'We've also learned that this issue touches just about all of us in one way or another. It can also bring together parts of the community that wouldn't necessarily come together otherwise - all in the name of supporting the youth we care for.'
Still, said Heather, 'we need to do more - as a community, as a state, and as a country.'
National statistics show suicide as the third-largest cause of death among teens. Suicide among LGBT teens is a serious problem. It is estimated that 30% to 40% of LGBT teens will attempt suicide at least once - and many of them will succeed.
OUTLoud is the state's only LGBTQ-focused organization battling youth suicide.
'LGBTQ teen suicide is not new. We are experiencing a time when the media is covering the issue, so when people hear about it on the news or read it in the newspaper they think it's a new issue or that it's a new epidemic,' said Heather.
'The upside is it's getting people talking. The downside is the fear that young people struggling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity or who are being bullied (or both) will think that suicide is a natural part of being LGBTQ-identified, and that is not true.'
'There is a risk involved, but that's not from the identity,' she said. 'That's from rejection, homophobia, and Transphobia, lack of connection to community and school, and family issues (and more), but not from their LGBTQ identity in and of itself.'
Every two years, a survey is conducted in many of our public schools. It focuses on many different issues, such as smoking, drinking, bullying, suicide, depression, etc. The latest, 'The Washington State Healthy Youth Survey for 2010,' offers some compelling results.
Heather told SGN she 'compared answers to three different questions in each set for grades 8 and 12 to compare middle school and high school.'
In the first set of slides, respondents answered:
o Whether or not they had been bullied,
o Whether or not they had been depressed, and
o Whether or not they had attempted suicide.
'Based on respondents' answers, we can see that bullying has a direct connection to risk for depression and suicide,' said Heather. 'I'm not saying bullying causes suicide, but it is a factor. It is what we call a 'risk factor' for both depression and suicide. We can also say there is a correlation between bullying experiences and risk for suicide and depression.'
In the second set of slides, respondents answered the following questions:
o Whether or not they had been harassed based on real or perceived sexual orientation,
o Whether or not they had been depressed, and
o Whether or not they had attempted suicide.
'First of all, we know based on population statistics that the majority of respondents to the question about harassment are not LGBTQ-identified; they are straight,' said Heather. 'So, what does the data tell us? It tells us that no matter how a youth identifies harassment based on sexual orientation, that the name-calling, such as 'fag' and 'fairy,' and rumors about being Gay have a negative impact on the targets. It increases their risk for depression and suicide.'
Based on her data, Heather said, 'you'll see that the risk for suicide is much higher amongst those who were targets of anti-LGBTQ harassment than general bullying.'
Percentages of respondents who reported a suicide attempt were 11.8% and 12.8% for 8th and 12th graders, respectively, who were bullied, compared to 19.8% and 21.1% who were harassed based on real or perceived sexual orientation - a much higher rate than the state average of 10% reported suicides.
'So, we can conclude, based on this data - which isn't perfect because it's anonymous and is dependent on respondents' understanding of what the issues are - that bullying has a negative impact, and that this particular type of bullying & has an even greater negative impact on the targets,' said Heather.
Heather told SGN that 'suicide is the second leading cause of death amongst all youth in our state.' Still, OUTLoud is operating on fumes. There is so much more work for Heather and OUTLoud to do, but they need funds to complete it.
'OUTLoud is the only such program in Washington state (and one of only a handful in the nation) that focuses in on LGBTQ youth in particular,' she said. 'Why does that matter? Because LGBTQ youth are at a high risk and there are very clear, specific things we all can do about that. OUTLoud educates people about what those things are and empowers people who work with youth to be a part of positive change in the those youths' lives.'
'Honestly, I do this work because I don't want another youth to struggle with depression or suicide because of who they are and their experiences,' she continued. 'I know what it's like to be a teen struggling with depression and truly not wanting to be me. I want the youth today who feel that way to know I want them to be them - just that, nothing more. I want them to know I care and so do many others.'
OUTLoud's focus area is ages 10-24. 'Most of our work is with the adults who work with the youth, so much of the approach is the same, but when working with youth directly, our peer-to-peer program is the way to go,' said Heather. 'Youth listen to their peers way before they listen to some random adult who comes in to talk about suicide. The hardest population to reach would be the 18-24 year olds who aren't in college. We're still working on how best to reach them.'
OUTLoud's peer-to-peer training consists of Heather and a youth-facilitated presentation, usually for a GSA. 'We also provide a presentation on LGBTQ youth suicide for adults - staff in schools, organizations, and family members - and our newest presentation focuses on bullying and bias-based harassment as it pertains to LGBTQ youth, and the links those experiences have with negative mental health outcomes - including risk for depression and suicide,' she said. 'We increase participants' knowledge of the issues (data and research findings), we strengthen their skills for prevention and intervention (recognizing the signs of depression and warning signs for suicide and how to approach a youth you're concerned about for intervention), and then we change attitudes about suicide and LGBTQ identity (cultural competency and knowledge about suicide as a preventable phenomenon). We also format our trainings to meet participants' needs.'
You'll Never Walk Alone
On October 22, Seattle Gay News will join with local talent to produce the second annual You'll Never Walk Alone: A Benefit for OUTLoud at Neighbours Seattle (1509 Broadway) at 8 p.m. The event is open to all ages.
'These community events over the past year have been amazing to me and to OUTLoud!' said Heather. 'They're so important because they let people know we're doing this work, they let people know that something can be done. We aren't depending on others to do it; we're doing it! Most importantly, it lets today's LGBTQ youth know that we recognize the struggles that they may be going through and we care about them and their lives and that they matter!'
Last year's event earned OUTLoud over $5,000. This year, organizers are hoping to double that effort. OUTLoud costs Youth Suicide Prevention Program $5,000 a month to operate - roughly $60,000 a year. It is the hope of SGN that the community can rally and fund OUTLoud for the year to come.
'YSPP is always looking for volunteers and donations. We're a small organization and OUTLoud specifically could really use some dollars to continue running and to expand beyond King County as much as possible,' concluded Heather. 'I would also say to be nice, because you never know what the person is going through who you might just have made fun of or put down, or made a joke about. It's easy to smile and say hi and it costs nothing, but it may make all the difference in the world to the person on the other side of that smile or that hello.'
For more information about the Youth Suicide Prevention Program and OUTLoud, or to make a donation, visit www.yspp.org.
For help, go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 800-273-TALK.
Also call the Trevor Project Lifeline at 866-488-7386.
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