Tyler Clementi’s death should weigh heavily upon all of us. In a universe of self-absorption and amusement at the expense of others, this young man took his life when his roommate and an accomplice, recorded and live streamed an intimate encounter with Tyler and a man. Though an exceptional violinist, his name will be attached to a tragedy that, truly, did not have to be.
For a moment, let’s eliminate the fact that he was gay. Tyler Clementi is a heterosexual teenager, whose performance is being analyzed by a group of people who do not care for him. This still has the potential to be a traumatic situation. There are still people who view their intimate moments as private, and rightfully expect to be free from scrutiny and malice. Replace the fact that Tyler WAS a gay, and apparently (at least partially) closeted teenager, and this makes this invasion even more traumatic. There had to be a certain level of fear, not only of how his peers would react, but members of his family, his primary support system.
I began investigating the topic of teenage suicide, and came across The Trevor Project, an organization specifically meant to support LGBT teens. It offered sobering facts pertaining to suicide rates amongst LGBT teens. The two that struck me hardest were:
- Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey 2007)
- Questioning youth who are less certain of their sexual orientation report even higher levels of substance abuse and depressed thoughts than their heterosexual or openly LGBT-identified peers (Poteat VP, Aragon SR, et al – Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2009)
It is indisputable that Tyler Clementi was a victim of homophobia, and the fear of being outed as gay was much more than he could bear, but there are so many other openly gay teens that weather the storm (for better or for worse), so I see this as more than just an issue of sexuality. I also see this as more than just “giving up,” the simplistic light some cast upon suicide. In cases of completed and attempted suicides, though there are major catalysts that may be pointed to as the trigger, there are more often than not underlying factors bubbling beneath the surface. Though they are at greater risk, not every gay teen completes or even attempts suicide. So why Tyler? The Trevor Project addresses this as well:
- LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are more than 8 times as likely to have an attempted suicide than LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection (Ryan C, Huebner D, et al – Peds 2009; 123(1):364-352)
Though I admittedly know nothing of Tyler, his background, and his support system, alienation from one’s family plays a major role in depression and suicide. This is by no means the time to single out parents, but rather, how we deal with our youth who do not subscribe to societal norms as a community. When we began looking at children as someone else’s problem rather than valued members of our village, we began losing the battle for our youth. Though not (currently) dealing with an issue of this magnitude, as a parent, I still realize my role as a support beam for those two lives for which I am responsible, as well as the other young ones in my family and community.
The simple act of being a teenager is a challenge in and of itself. Our kids walk a razor’s edge between coolness and marginalization. We’ve heard the saying time and again, “Kids can be cruel.” These are not just empty words. But, as parents, how do we react toward our children? As adults, how do we treat the children we encounter? I can walk past the most unruly group of youngsters, and simply acknowledging their humanity with an “Excuse me,” or “Good afternoon” can make all the difference.
From a personal standpoint, I had to take a brutally honest look at how I deal with my own children. With my mouth, I consistently encourage them to come to me with problems, or be honest with me when they fall short so that we can work things out together. However, with my actions, I’ve actually heard my inner voice saying, This is why they didn’t want to tell you. In situations where my kids legitimately screwed the pooch, I yelled, I berated, and I harped on those things. Ultimately I calmed down and we hashed the situation out, but what adult would want to weather that storm to attain resolution, much less a child? My reactions to missed buses, forgotten homework and miscellaneous preteen screw ups were all the same: ultimate meltdowns. Yes, kids have to be responsible, but not every snafu is World War III. If he can’t tell me that he had problems on a math test, how could I expect him to confide in me with larger problems? What type of foundation am I laying?
In the case of LGBT adolescents, saying I love you no matter what is meaningless, if my deeds scream Homophobe. How could a child come out to me? Why would they count on me for love and support? And when they are targeted by children, who often use malice to cover their own insecurities and uncertainties, who should they believe will shield them?
I realize that fear and lack of understanding may make coping with certain things difficult, children are simply of us, they are not us. They are not programmed with our opinions and precepts, and even once we pass those things on, it is possible they will reject them. We can guide them and love them, without owning and controlling them.
Of course, no parent is perfect, so we can be thankful for the wealth of resources that help us to effectively support our children. The Trevor Project is but one. There is CDC led initiative STRYVE, as well as the Children’s Safety Network, both which serve as resources in the prevention of youth violence, including suicide. The CDC has also been conducting research on implementing suicide prevention initiatives at the state level.
On a micro level, let’s take it upon ourselves to examine the environment we are fostering. Bond and and form networks with other parents, so that we can give our children a platform in a safe place to share their concerns. One of the suggestions offered by the Children’s Safety Network was “strengthening norms that support help-seeking behaviors.” Let’s bridge the gap between the things we do and say, so that our children can see us as confidantes. Let’s prove to our children that we want them healthy and alive.