My Facebook feed today includes a story about a teenager who died by suicide. There is a photo of this great-looking kid, and link to a Go Fund Me page for his funeral expenses. Googling in various ways, I can’t find a news story about it, but I assume it is true. The Facebook post says he “took his life because he was bullied for being gay.”
This tragic story illustrates a number of extremely serious problems. First, we are in a national crisis–an ACTUAL one– because of rising suicide rates. They are up in almost all demographics in the last decade, including teenagers. There is no doubt that LGBTQ youth have higher rates than non-LGBTQ youth, but rising suicide rates are sparing no demographic.
We’ve become increasingly aware of the problem of bullying, in general and, of course, the vulnerability to LGBTQ individuals to bullying. There’s then the ongoing concern that even with progress toward accepting LGBTQ people, there’s still so far to go.
But I have to also express my concerns about the trend toward people stating flatly that a person died by suicide because they were bullied. Suicide is complex in the aggregate and each individual case is complex. It usually is the result of converging internal, external, and interpersonal factors. Anytime one says that a person killed himself or herself for a specific reason, that is an incomplete story. That said, there’s never been any doubt in my mind that bullying is sometimes a cause of the psychological factors that can lead to suicide, and is sometimes a trigger for suicide attempts and death by suicide.
My worry comes from noting in recent years that when a minor dies by suicide, within HOURS, social media and news reports talk about reports of bullying. My fear is that this has caused a kind of cultural template: If a minor dies by suicide, it MUST have been because they were bullied. But it is fair to ask whether those social media posts and news stories are accurate? We now know that people are willing to make all kinds of statements and pass on all kinds of rumors that aren’t true. Social media is full of people commenting freely about things they know nothing about. And if a news outlet quotes others as having heard the child was bullied, that doesn’t mean they were, nor does it mean that was *the cause*of the suicide. If a classmate or parent says to a reporter “She was bullied!” it could be because that person witnessed bullying. Or it could be that they are essentially saying, “She killed herself, so she was bullied.”
Good comes from the awareness of how harmful bullying can be, including that it could be a contributor to suicide. But there are downsides to assuming, without evidence, that a specific suicide is the result of bullying.
These stories almost always include an element that the school was aware of the bullying and didn’t do anything about it. In effect, schools are blamed for the suicides of their students. I’m not saying that schools don’t sometimes fail to respond well to bullying. I am saying that responding well to bullying is far more difficult and complicated than people know. It isn’t fair to make those accusations of schools without evidence. People talking about it in the wake of a suicide may be weak evidence.
More concerning to me is that if we believe the problem of teen suicide can be reduced to a specific cause, like bullying, then we are going to devote all the way-too-limited resources to trying to stop suicide by fighting bullying. I know this to be true: Teenagers get can get mental illness. They can get clinically depressed, for example. There doesn’t have to be an identifiable reason that any of us get depressed. But when we get certain mental illnesses, we then are at increased risk to die by suicide.(Having mental illness, or emotional or behavioral problems also make us more prone to be bullied, which adds to how complicated these matters are.) Knowing that is true, we know that we cannot address the problem of youth suicide without going about the very expensive business of getting our youth the mental health screening, evaluations, and treatment they need.