In the Saturday, September 24th issue of Globe Focus entitled: “We’re Not Going to Sit in Silence,” Erin Anderssen explores teen suicide from the point of view of the victims’ families and friends. What follows is a heart wrenching series of interviews with the surviving parents of six boys in the Ottawa area who died by suicide this past year. Anderssen takes great pains to represent the unimaginable emotional turmoil bestowed on parents who are left with the loss of their children, and raises important concerns about youth suicide and its effects. What troubles me about the piece itself, however, is that the narrative makes specific claims about suicide that markedly misrepresent and sidestep particular facts, speaking to what I see as The Globe’s attempt to avoid the relationship between youth suicide and queer sexuality.
So why The Globe’s queer omissions?
Painting teenaged-suicide as both an uncontrollable and “maddening enigma,” Anderssen paradoxically speaks to the mysteriousness of youth suicide while at the same time fashioning “mental illness” as its general cause. Rife with suggestions that each of the teens in this article were suicidal because of mental illness, Anderssen and the experts chosen for the piece spend much time putting the onus of suicidal thoughts on the teens themselves while doing little to mention the cultural and social contexts these teens were battling daily.
Psychologist Darcy Santor, quoted in this article, states: “at least 91 percent of victims are suffering from some form of mental illness at the time of their deaths, though it may not have been diagnosed.” This declaration is not only bloated with uncertainties and obscure opinions surrounding psychological problems but it troublingly exonerates each of us as Canadians from our social responsibility to create safe spaces, policies, and programs for all youth regardless of their sexuality, gender, class, or race.
Furthermore, by suggesting suicidal youth would benefit from more professional care and “psychiatric beds,” this prognosis overlooks the overwhelming evidence that there are other, clear risk factors for teen suicide that look beyond mental illness. For instance, Canadian studies consistently have cited LGBTQ youth to be one of the most at-risk groups for suicide evidenced by a 32% rate of attempt compared to the cited 7% for heterosexual teens. In Quebec alone, studies have shown that gay and bisexual youth are 6-16 times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens; studies in British Columbia have purported as much as 18.5-42% of the LGBTQ persons assessed described attempts on their own lives; in Alberta it was found that 28% of completed suicides were carried out by LGBTQ youth, while 37.8% of queer teens reported being physically or emotionally affected by blatant homophobia. Finally, in Ontario, 77% of trans youth have admitted to contemplating suicide while 43% have tried. Terrifyingly, The Trevor Project’s (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/suicide-resources/suicidal-signs) statistics concerning queer youth suicide are much, much higher.
And yet, Andersson does not mention these statistics choosing instead to write around sexuality, refusing to name queerness anywhere in the article. At times the refusal is luminescent. In the discussion about Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14-year-old boy who jumped off an overpass in Buffalo, NY, there is no mention of his gay identity. While Anderssen does suggest that the boy suffered years of “bullying,” the term homophobia does not present itself anywhere. Anderssen even mentions that Rodemeyer posted a video to the “It Gets Better Project”— a now famous initiative started by Dan Savage, an openly gay writer and activist, in order to combat the staggering amount of gay-teen suicides that began throughout 2010— and yet fails to include the vital fact that the site is primarily for homosexual youth and their allies. Calling it an “anti-bullying (anti-suicide) web-site” the absence of the terms homophobia and homosexual is scathing.
The lack of discussion concerning queerness seems deliberate especially in light of the fact that there have been tragic Ontario queer youth suicides in the recent past including Shaquille Wisdom (2007), and lesbian couple Chantal Dube and Jeanine Blanchette (2010) who were found last October kilometers away from where 14-year-old Daron Richardson, the only female victim discussed in Andersson’s article, died by suicide in November 2010.
I am not suggesting that queer teens are the only ones at risk for suicide. Of course, this is simply untrue. I’m also not saying depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse are not viable contributing factors to suicidal ideation. But to omit other known triggers is to do youth and the goal of this expose on suicide a dangerous disservice. Pointing out that some youth are depressed, anxious, drinking, and lonely is a step; however, the larger question remains why? What are we as a community and culture not addressing?
What a more well-rounded argument makes clear is that outside factors such as hatred, homophobia, ignorance and violence are conditioned by adults and are placing “at risk youth” (a group that is growing all of the time) in harm’s way. Also evidenced is that suicide is not a personal problem and it is certainly not a “contagion” you can catch “like a cough spreading a cold” as Anderssen suggests; suicide is a socially supported act that we each need to address in serious, clearly presented ways with all facts on the table.
Is suicide itself a mental illness? This article seems to suggest it is. I am certainly unconvinced. It seems irresponsible to place the blame for suicidal ideation preliminarily and primarily on mental illness, parents and their youth. I think time would be better served discussing ways in which the culture we live in supports homophobia, racism, classism, and sexism and continues to take away the few outlets, resources, and community-based services these kids have to turn to.
When we as a society enable a government that refuses to maintain funding to local, community-based services for troubled teens (such as The 519, Planned Parenthood Toronto, SOY, numerous arts and community organizations for at risk kids), when we endorse leaders who refuse to support inclusive sex education, continue to fund Catholic Schools that are not in accordance with Human Rights laws or equity programs, and perpetuate continued racism, is it any wonder some youth are seriously depressed, feeling alone, or drinking?