Thursday, November 18, 2010

    Let's Start Talking: Teens, Bullying & Suicide Pt. 5

    Part five of a mini series exploring the disturbing trend of teen bullying and its consequences. See also parts one, twothree, and four.

    This is the third guest post in this series authored by Dr. Michael E. Kirk, a California-based licensed clinical psychologist, specializing for over twenty-five years in child and adolescent issues. He is a father of three and a grandfather. In this essay, Dr. Kirk shares part two of an essay on the issue of teen suicide:

    It has been only in the last decade that there has been recognition that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth (generally defined as ages 15-24) are at an increased risk of suicide compared to other youth. A growing body of research literature has provided the estimate that gays, lesbians, and bisexual youth attempt suicide at a rate 2-3 times higher than their heterosexual peers. Some studies indicate that the rate of attempted suicide for transgender youth is higher than 50%. It is also estimated that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth comprise 30% of completed suicides, with transgender youth also having a high incidence of completed suicides.

    Sexual and gender minority youth are at a high risk of suicide largely because of societal and developmental factors. This age period is when all people face the developmental tasks of finding or cementing their identity and establishing sexual/emotional intimacy in relationships. Our society fosters, nurtures, and channels these tasks for heterosexual youth. Implicitly and explicitly, heterosexual youth have their feelings, identities, and relationships acknowledged and validated. In general, our society is a perilous wasteland for sexual and gender minority youth. It is a wasteland because the resources that might help them in the developmental tasks of finding identity and establishing intimacy are nonexistent in most places, scarce in others. It is perilous because there are real dangers to their emotional and physical well-being which they must try to navigate.

    The teen years can often become times that are very challenging in general, but for homosexual teens their problems can turn out to be more difficult. Being gay for many teens is something that they can not live with because most of the time society, and often their own families, says that homosexuality is wrong. These teens usually have no one to go to with their problems for fear of being taunted, harassed, disgraced, or humiliated. With no place to go and no one to help them, homosexual teens can feel alienated which may force them think of more damaging or destructive ways of dealing with their problems, so at times gay teens may turn to suicide rather than having to continue to deal with their seemingly unsolvable problems.

    For many gay teens their everyday existence can cause severe psychological damage. When they are at school they are often taunted and harassed, and at home if they are not "out" they may be experiencing the constant fear of "what would my parents say if they knew I was gay?" Both of these situations can cause considerable stress on a teen, especially since they have to go through the other stressful problems that all their peers must deal with and go through. The school environment can be a very unsafe and scary place for an "out" gay teen. Many times they are physical hurt and called names. In a recent survey of 496 gay adolescents, 69 percent of these gay students reported having been targets of verbal, physical or sexual harassment in school, and that 42 percent said they had been physically assaulted. While gay teens are twice as likely to contemplate or attempt suicide as their straight counterparts, the study found that 85 percent of the same-sex- oriented youth never contemplated taking their own lives.

    Harassment, threats of violence, and physical/sexual assaults by peers and family are frequently experienced by sexual and gender minority youth. Even more ubiquitous are the slurs, insults, and jokes regarding this population which color their environment and make it an even greater challenge for them to come to love and accept themselves and have good self-esteem. Most of these young people do not possess the internal and external resources nor the autonomy that come with greater age to help them through these struggles with their environment. The internalized lack of acceptance of self, growing sense of self-dislike or self-hatred and resulting pain for sexual and gender minority youth contribute to a higher risk of abusing alcohol and other drugs as a means of numbing those feelings.

    There are several things that can help reduce the suicide risk factors for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. People can make a commitment to making the environment a safer place for them. Heterosexuals who are aware of this can do a lot. Refrain from acting amused at or ignoring the bigoted jokes and insults that are frequently made about sexual and gender minorities. Go a step further and confront those who make these remarks, telling them that you do not find them appropriate. Your voice will be a signal to others to speak up as well. Additionally, you can continue your own education about all sorts of people who are different than you, including sexual and gender minorities. Open your mind and your heart and others will follow. Communicate your caring to those around you. Support the struggles of this population to obtain the same basic civil rights you have, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    Dr. Michael E. Kirk