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Trevor Project director warns: Media attention of specific LGBTQ youth suicides harmful

Thursday, October 20, 2011
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LOS ANGELES — David McFarland, the interim executive director and CEO for The Trevor Project — a national suicide prevention hotline for LGBT youth — is warning that overexposure by the media and LGBT bloggers, press, and Facebook pages focusing on specific cases of suicides by LGBT youth may be exacerbating the problem.

McFarland advocates that the LGBTQ community can help avoid making suicide appear like a logical choice “by putting distance between statements or stories describing instances of bullying and instances of suicide.”

David McFarland (right), with Trevor Project supporter, actor Daniel Radcliffe

“Communicating about this crisis is complicated because the reasons a person attempts suicide are also complicated,” he said. “Even talking about specific suicides online and in the media can encourage more deaths.”

According to McFarland, there is a definitive link between media reports and a person’s decision to attempt suicide which he terms as suicide contagion.

Citing the recent suicide of Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley as an example, McFarland warned that a well-known suicide serves as a model, in the absence of protective factors, the more likely one or more people who are at-risk will also attempt suicide.

McFarland said that Hubley’s death has the appearances of a combination of compromised psychological well-being influenced by factors of contagion. He noted that the young person was also the victim of anti-LGBT bullying, which made a bad situation even worse.

“Communicating about this crisis is complicated because the reasons a person attempts suicide are also complicated. Even talking about specific suicides online and in the media can encourage more deaths.

That’s not to say the unnecessary death of a young person in our community should go unnoticed. Whenever a young person dies by suicide, it is an absolute tragedy because, at its core, we know it could have been prevented. It is important to grieve and also to do something that changes whatever environment made it possible.

But there are ways of talking about suicide that could increase the likelihood of other at-risk people attempting to take their own lives. This is because suicide is closely tied to psychological well-being.

When we draw direct lines from sexual orientation or bullying to suicide, it can influence someone who is at-risk to assume that taking your own life is what you’re supposed to do next if you are LGBT or bullied. This may not seem rational, but attempting to take your own life is an irrational act.

As a caring community, we can help avoid making suicide appear like a logical choice by putting distance between statements or stories describing instances of bullying and instances of suicide.”

McFarland said that honoring Spirit Day on Thursday is a positive message people who want to assist in solving the problem of bullying and, in the process, address the national health crisis of LGBT youth who are attempting suicide, can send to others.

He suggests:

  • Wear purple: Signal to a young LGBT person that you support them.
  • Tweet and post: Share with your friends and followers that you support #SpiritDay.
  • Learn to C.A.R.E.: When you Connect, Accept, Respond and Empower a young person in crisis, you can help save a life.
  • Contact your Member of Congress: Tell them that LGBT youth in their district are experiencing a health crisis, and we need their support of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, and the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act.

“As a community that cares, we can make a difference and stop this health crisis affecting LGBT youth. With the support of our highest elected officials, and the millions of people who want to make a difference, we can enact the sea-change necessary to save the lives of youth in crisis. Participating in Spirit Day is one step to doing that,” McFarland said.

Editor’s Note: If you or a young person you know is LGBT and thinking about suicide, call The Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. For adults over 24, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-866-273-8255.

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