Written by: Tonya J. Williams, B.A., J.D.
Author’s Note: Suicide is a tragedy for anyone – adult or child. While this article shines a spotlight on the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ youth, the content, for the most part, can be applied to any youth or adult. It is my hope that this article is merely a starting point for education regarding suicide prevention, and that if you have concerns about a child committing suicide, you will consider the resources set forth below as well as others that can be found via google or another internet search engine. Finally, I believe finding ourselves in the stories of others may offer a life line that can save lives. Accordingly, I have included a few books, along with the other resources at the bottom of this post, that I believe would be particularly helpful to the parent of a teen who may be struggling with his/her sexuality and needs a safe place to land.
Estimates indicate that 3.8 percent of United States citizens are gay or lesbian. Teens make up a smaller percentage of that total, though both are difficult to fully quantify because discrimination and prejudice impact people’s willingness to self-report. Gay teens tend to experience more bullying and more isolation than their heterosexual peers. They also are four times more likely than their heterosexual peers to attempt to kill themselves.
Suicide is the most devastating reality for those who are living with mental health issues or are alienated in some other way. It is devastating when an adult takes their life, but, perhaps in some sense, even more so when a child does. When a child dies by suicide, we can only lament that she/he had their whole life in front of them, so much to experience and look forward to.
It is difficult for most people to understand why anyone (young or old) would attempt to actually kill themselves. When contemplating the issue, some resort to platitudes like, “it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I have said this myself, even though I know simple platitudes are not enough to understand the many emotions that lead a child down the path of attempting suicide. While some people rely on platitudes, others look to religion and in the privacy of their homes generally, condemn the person to hell for taking their own life, even when that person is a child. Still others resort to words like “crazy” to describe the person who died by suicide. This type of language is hurtful and does nothing to increase understanding and awareness about why anyone, a child included, would take such a desperate and extreme measure because of what is happening in their life.
Of course the reasons vary depending upon the individual, but there are also some commonalities across each tragedy. Individuals, especially children, experience among other things, a sense of hopelessness, isolation, impulsivity and loneliness, all of which are interrelated. Gay teens experience most of these emotions at some point in their lives. The reality of their experiences at home, in school, in church and in the larger society indicate why this is the case. They are completely dependent upon parents and other adults who may not approve of or support their identity. Their age, emotional and mental immaturity when they are preteens or teens often render it difficult to cope with the many forms of rejection they encounter.
Not surprisingly, gay teens may believe it is easier to kill themselves than to tell people who care about them about their identity and what is happening in their minds and lives. Let’s consider that gay teens are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers. In addition, for those gay and lesbian teens whose families do not support them, they are 8.4 times more likely to die by suicide than those gay and lesbian teens who receive support from their families. This is especially important because the research makes it clear that where gay children are supported by those who love them, they can avoid the loneliness, isolation and many other circumstances that cause them to attempt or die by suicide. It is equally as clear that a lack of support for them can be fatal.