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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, November 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 44
Ask Michael: Youth suicide prevention
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Ask Michael: Youth suicide prevention

by Michael Raitt - SGN Contributing Writer

I find myself very disturbed because of the need to write about young LGBTQ men and women killing themselves. It means that youth suicide is still a major concern in our community. I was reflecting how this issue eerily mirrors the struggles the community had in the early years of HIV/AIDS - young people dying needlessly and a lack of concern by certain others in the larger society.

There is talk about how to prevent suicide in the community. To continue this conversation, let me remind people about the gravity of the subject. When a young adult is seriously contemplating suicide, it means they are experiencing a level of anguish and psychological/spiritual pain that they feel they can't bear any longer. Many can't find - let alone hold onto - hope. Words can't express the experience they are feeling. However, a good number of us have felt these horrible feelings at periods in our lives and know what they are like. For those who created the It Gets Better Project, I speculate that, to some degree, having had these feelings in the past spurred this movement. When I feel the feelings I had as a teen, I'm called to action now!

Let's dispel one myth about suicide: The act or contemplation of suicide is not any reflection on weakness! It is about agony in the present and hopelessness about the future. It's about a state of being so worn down and isolated by the relentlessness and severity of bullying that no hope can be found.

The only way to have any hope of reducing youth suicide is to fully understand what bullying is. Bullying has two dimensions: duration and degree. Duration is about how long bullying goes on. For many, bullying goes on over time for months and years. It is unwavering over its span. Degree refers to the severity of the character assassination and physical violence perpetuated against LGBTQ youth.

Degree and duration also describe the effects bullying has on its victims. Victims of bullying can suffer its pain to the core of their being, and for many years after the bullying has stopped. They don't just feel worthless; they believe they are worthless, and that is a completely different place to be in.

Unequivocally, bullying is about tormenting another relentlessly both mentally and physically, over a long period of time, and it has significant consequences. It is highly stressful on its victims and causes serious psychological and spiritual suffering. As a side note, we know that some soldiers who have experienced chronic high levels of stress and are tormented psychologically and spiritually by what they've gone through, unfortunately choose suicide as an option. It is not about the context - war or high school - it's about the effects that long-term severe stress has and the degree to which people are affected by what has happened to them that causes suicide.

Preventing youth suicide has important foundational components. The It Gets Better Project is one of those components: hope! We know that when people have hope, they are less likely to commit suicide. This project has called on many in many communities to offer hope! I have been touched by so many of their stories.

The other components - reprieve and remedies - also call on a multitude of people and professionals from various organizations and interests to work together to prevent suicide. It has to be a multi-dimensional approach including school officials, parents, peers, community members, and dare I say religious leaders!

LGBTQ youth need immediate reprieve! They will be less likely to commit suicide if they get relief from the on-going violence. Remember, violence is both mental and physical. Reprieve means that people in authority have to step in and intervene immediately. School officials and friends can provide authority and support to put an end to the attacks. Suspensions/expulsions of perpetrators need to happen immediately and their return to school must be conditional. A three-day slap on the wrist won't deter anyone!

As well, victims, their families, and organizations need to have legal remedies to stop the violence. Victims must be able to obtain restraining orders and pursue financial restitution against perpetrators and their parents. We need lawyers, judges, police officials, and others to acknowledge the severity of this problem and put their expertise and skill behind protecting young LGBTQ men and women.

Healthcare professionals need to work aggressively to treat the damage that is caused to the identity of targeted LGTBQ youth. This is deeper than how one feels about oneself - self-esteem. This is about the value and worth that one feels in the face of messages that they have no value or worth!

Reprieve, remedies, and hope make up the foundation for saving lives! Hate is a systemic problem - it is much broader than just a lone perpetrator. It stems from messages these perpetrators get from those they look up to.

Helping young LGBTQ men and women requires a systemic solution - the involvement of many parties - both professionals and peers alike. It has to be a priority! All involved have to get past the notion that this is simply 'kids teasing kids' and that kids have to get strong! It is about the intentional targeting and long-term systematic abuse of youngsters by their peers who are sometimes encouraged by adults.

We got outraged and came together to effect change when our lives weren't being valued during the early years of the AIDS crisis. People from all walks of life and circumstance came together to fight for what was right and to fight for lives.

There is little difference today. Lives are at stake and we can effect change. Get involved, donate money, email schools and school boards across the country when youth are being targeted and put pressure on legislators to legislate change so that victims and their families can get restitution and perpetrators can experience real and meaningful consequences to the violence and harm they are causing.

Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at askingmichael@comcast.net.

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