October 20, 2010
Teen Suicide On The Rise?
Is it an epidemic? After the recent death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student who took his own life after a roommate taped him engaging in sex with another male, reports regarding cases of tormented teens who see no way out and turn to suicide are proliferating. The trend appears to be on the rise, especially among gay young men.
The Center for Disease Control reports suicide is the third leading cause of death, behind accidents and homicide, of individuals ranging in age from 15 to 24. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14.
What has changed on the national landscape, however, is the recent spike in bullying -- especially cyberbullying on online social networking sites.
According to David Kilmnick, CEO of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, "It's a societal issue. It's not just a gay issue, it's an issue that gay and straight alike need to address – and address it quickly."
Traditionally, gay teen suicides have always been three to four times higher than among heterosexual peers.
Triggering recent reports, he believes, is an "uptick in gay rhetoric, in the rampant bullying and harassment that goes on and is still allowed in our communities. Sometimes kids feel they don't have any other choice but to do this – they see no other option."
Locally, outreach efforts seek to show teens that they are not alone; help, and support, are available: Kilmnick's organization is a visible presence on the East End, working with the Pierson, Westhampton and Southold school districts on a number of initiatives to help empower teens. Programs such as workshops on topics including sexual orientation and bullying, and the creation of gay/straight alliance clubs in schools, are proactive tools. "Kids can be cruel," he said. "We have to educate."
Cyberbullying affects all teens, said one Southampton Town mother who asked not to be identified in order to protect her child. Her son, 13, "has been a target of bullying for a number of years. Socially, he's just really struggled."
Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, the boy faces challenges in school, where kids bullied him relentlessly. "One of the kids wrote on Facebook, 'You should just go kill yourself. No one likes you, anyway.'"
Thankfully, she said, her son came to her and she was able to help him navigate the crisis. "If this could happen to my kid, it can happen to any kid."
That's why organizations such as the Shelter Island based Human Growth and Understanding Seminars are critical in reaching out to kids and giving them a haven. "It's all about teaching tolerance," said director Kym Laube.
Response of Suffolk County, Inc, is a 24-hour crisis intervention and suicide prevention hot line resource for teens in peril. Executive Director Meryl Cassidy confirms teens have always been one of the most at risk groups. "It's nothing new. What's new is the hate crimes – and these young men who are taking their own lives. The numbers seem staggering."
Young people are at particular risk, she said, for a number of reasons. "There is a lot of black and white thinking at that age – impulsivity." Also, the teen years often see the onset of mental illness. And stressors such as choosing a career path and the recent "fatalism" among students who see no career future in bleak economic times, contribute to teen suicide. "It's like the perfect storm – ten different factors might come together in just the wrong way at just the wrong time."
On the positive side, "prevention does work," Cassidy said, and her organization teams up with educators in East End schools to show help and alternatives are available.
Celebrities are streaming videos with a message: "It gets better," said Cassidy. But Kilmnick's organization has taken a different tack. "Our approach is to make it better now. Kids shouldn't have to wait another day for it to get better."
Riverhead psychologist Dr. Peter Wigg suggests several strategies to help teens become proactive against bullying. One way is to "stand up against" bullies. And second, he encourages teens to spend time with friends. "If kids are part of a group, it's less likely they'll be bullied."
Finally, raising awareness is critical. "Bullies don't always understand the repercussions of what they've done," said Wigg. "Raising awareness of how bullying can impact a person's life and self esteem is important."