“suicide because of bullying”

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.

4 books about criminal justice I beg you to read.

I have a long interest in the criminal justice system. It began with my opposition to the death penalty. That research made me curious about police interrogations, false confessions, inequities in the criminal justice system, and related problems. Here are four books I beg my friends to read.

Lawrence Wright: Remembering Satan: A Tragic Case of Recovered Memory

  • This book is 22 years old and is criminally neglected, no pun intended. True story of an allegation of a massive satanic abuse cult in the northwestern USA. To this day, the book describes the most astounding case of false confessions I’ve ever heard about, even knowing about the Central Park 5. In spite of 22 years of begging people to read it, I can’t get the damn thing arrested.

Scott Turow: Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty

  • Lawyer Scott Turow, best known for excellent crime fiction (Presumed Innocent, etc.), was asked to serve on a commission in Illinois on the death penalty. Its conclusions led the Governor of Illinois to commute all death sentences. Turow says he went into the experience with no strong opinion on the death penalty but came out on the other end as an abolitionist. (This is what happens, by the way, to anyone who actually studies the death penalty and who has a half-way open mind.) When I get into an argument on the death penalty, I offer to give the person a copy of the book. I tell them that if they read it and it doesn’t change their minds, I’ll buy them a steak dinner. I’ve yet to buy a steak dinner, but mostly because I CAN’T GET ANYBODY TO READ IT. Notice a pattern forming here?

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

  • Full disclosure. Bryan Stevenson is a hero of mine. We’re both on a board of advisors of an anti-death penalty group in Alabama. But it never meets in the same room and he has no idea who I am. He gave a famous Ted Talk and runs the Equal Justice Initiative. This beautiful book made me sputtering mad, familiar as I already was with some of the cases outlined in the book. I shook Mr. Stephenson’s hand at a book-signing and told him the book had made me so furious that I threw my Kindle. I told him that’s how angry white liberals show their anger. He laughed heartily, which made my month, on account of my mancrush on Bryan Stevenson. This one is a best-seller and a movie version is announced but I fear it might be in development hell.

Finally, the most recent read:

James Duane: You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

  • Short, but essential read by a former criminal defense attorney and now a law professor. He is known for a YouTube video in which he explains why you should never, ever talk to the police. Never, ever. He makes the case that suspects, guilty AND INNOCENT, get themselves in terrible trouble by waiving their Constitutional right to remain silent. Here’s what he says you should say to police who want to talk to you: Tell them your name. Tell them what you are doing right now (“I’m just out walking the dog, Sir.”). And tell them “I want a lawyer.” NOTHING else. You don’t believe this is good advice. That’s because you haven’t read the book. It’s a short read that will engage the mind of a Ph.D. or a smart 7th grader, which is really hard to do. Not only can this book keep innocent people out of jail, but it also will give the reader horrifying insights into how the criminal and prosecutorial systems abuse the things that are said during interviews with police, interviews that are fundamentally based on trickery.