Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

Gay suicides and media hype

October 7, 2010

MILITARY-GAYS/

The story of Tyler Clementi brings tears to the eyes. The Rutgers University freshman jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after a video of him having sex with a man was posted on the Internet, probably by a classmate. Not only did a promising young life end — it’s 2010, and even college students still exhibit malicious anti-gay bias.

Yet does his awful death mean there’s a “trend” of suicides by young gays and lesbians. That has been a television theme in the last week. It’s clear there have been suicides in which young homosexuals kill themselves at least in part owing to harassment.  Each instance is heartbreaking. But people who aren’t gay, or don’t belong to any group that has been subjected to prejudice, take their own lives. Does the occurrence of a gay person’s suicide show any larger trend?

In 2007, there were about 42 million Americans aged 15-24. The self-inflicted death rate for this group was about one in 10,300. That comes to roughly 4,000 suicides a year by those of teens-to-college age — a horrible figure. That suicide is a leading cause of death for young people is, itself, horrible.

The exact figure is disputed, but a good estimate is that three to four percent of the human family is homosexual. Based on the suicide rate for those 15 to 24, we’d expect somewhere around 150 gay or lesbian young people to kill themselves in a year. That’s terrible – but also shows a few instances of gay suicide do not constitute a trend. This ABC News report laments “five suicides by gay teenagers in the last three weeks,” implying a sudden new development. Other things being equal, statistics would suggest nine suicides by gay young adults in a three-week period.

Are homosexuals as a group at greater risk of suicide than others of similar backgrounds? This study found that gay young people who are rejected by their families are much more likely than their age group as a whole to attempt to kill themselves. But do heterosexual youth who are rejected by their families also have elevated suicide-attempt rates? Being rejected by your family would be traumatic regardless of the reason.

This Centers for Disease Control backgrounder on suicide does not cite sexual orientation as a leading factor, nor does this briefing paper from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The AFSP views “psychiatric disorders” as the leading cause of suicide. Mistreatment by society might cause severe depression, the disorder most associated with suicide.

It’s tempting for editors and talk-show bookers to imply that an instance shows a larger trend. Often it doesn’t. In a country of 300 million people, you can find an instance of practically anything. Surely one could find instances of happy, well-adjusted gays and lesbians who are perfectly content with their lives. That would not prove a trend of treating homosexuals fairly, any more than a gay person’s suicide proves a trend of treating them unfairly.
The flip side of this coin is that another kind of suicide — military suicides — are rising at a rate that does show a clear trend.

The Houston Chronicle reported on Monday, “Last year suicides made up nearly 25 percent of the deaths of Texans younger than 35 who served in the military. That percentage is more than twice the rate of suicide in the comparable civilian population.”

In 2008 and 2009, suicide rates among active-duty military exceeded the rates for the general population of the same age and gender. The Army says the 2010 suicide rate is down, roughly to the rate of comparable civilian population.

Military suicide rates are troubling because of what they suggest about the stress and suffering imposed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars which most Americans have not been so much as inconvenienced. Military suicides are further troubling because soldiers tend to enjoy better health than the population as a whole, meaning health problems are less likely to be suicide factors, and have ready access to no-charge psychological counseling, which should tend to reduce suicide rates.

Any suicide by anyone is a devastating tragedy — but news reports must weigh which tragedies are personal, and which may represent some larger trend.

And bear in mind:

  • Suicide is not a private choice — it causes lasting emotional pain and psychological harm to family and loved ones. When death comes from old age or late-stage disease, ending your own life may be ethical. Except in that circumstance, suicide is both morally wrong and cruel to others.
  • Studies of those who have attempted suicide and failed show that in almost all cases, they are glad they failed. Whatever awful thing is causing you to consider suicide — it may change, and you’ll later be glad to be alive to know it changed.
  • If your leg was broken you’d ask for help. If you are thinking about suicide, ask for help. Suicidal thoughts do not mean you are a bad person — they mean you have a problem and need help. Most people who receive suicide counseling get better.
Comments
10 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The implication of your post is that gay suicides are receiving undue attention by the media. There’s also a subtle implication that the suicides are being politicized. That may or may not be true, but you seem to suggest that there’s some kind of competition for the public’s attention going on. I believe that gay suicides, military suicides, and all suicides in general deserve attention.

But to draw an “all suicides are created equal” kind of argument ignores and glosses over the specific circumstances that lead particular groups to a higher suicide rate. Most gay teens, I’d imagine, don’t face the same stress of a battlefield. Likewise, most soldiers, I’d guess, don’t face ostracism in their own homes just for being enlisted.

The important point here is that part of the response to the incidents (if not ‘trends’) of gay suicide involves examining the attitudes, and yes, policies toward gay people in our country. See the post from BHOlied for a prime example. Imagine being his or her gay child?

If the coverage of gay suicides results in more awareness drawn to the issue, more discussions, more understanding and even changes in policy that treat gays and lesbians as less than equal, then I’m all for it. Especially if it leads to fewer deaths.

Do we need to cover and examine the specifics of military suicides too? Absolutely. It’s not an either or situation.

Finally, I commend you for including suggestions on getting help for those considering suicide.

Posted by necerbed | Report as abusive
 

The only problem I have with the media’s portrayal of the high rate of suicides among gay youths is that they treat it as if it was new. If Gregg had bothered to doing more research than the first result of a “gay suicide rate” Google search, he would have found plenty of articles going back to over a decade that clearly link a higher suicide attempt rate with being young and homosexual. And Gregg is right that sexual orientation isn’t considered a leading factor of suicide by the CDC’s. But this is due to the fact that few people ever kill themselves simply because they are gay. As one of the articles Gregg didn’t bother to read stated, ”They are no more mentally unstable than other students, but they are susceptible to victimization by their peers.” This increased susceptibility leads to high suicide risk factors such as feeling alone, depression, and/or using drugs as a way to cope. Why are gays more susceptible? Because of posters like BHOlied, an idiot who thinks a toy which was meant to teach children spatial cognition should also be used to measure the morality of homosexuality. And because of people like Gregg, who seem willfully ignorant of the well documented problems gay youths experience. Need references?
http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/li brary/record/399.html
http://www.english.iup.edu/liberalstudie s/gay_teen_suicide.htm
http://parentingteens.about.com/cs/gayte ens/a/gayyouthsuicide.htm
Suicidal behavior among gay male youth: Fact or fiction? Ph.D. Thesis, Wright State
University, Dayton, Ohio. Abstract supplied by author on August 21, 2001.

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive
 

I think Gregg neglected to mention that the CDC statistics don’t really track suicide by sexual orientation. Studies that disaggregate gay youths generally show a higher rate among that population. But there is no new trend, it’s always been higher for whatever reason because we tend to have more psychological problems among our population. There’s nothing new here. But I feel inclined to agree with what Gregg is alluding to, that a 25 percent suicide rate among military personnel is far more alarming. And why is it there’s no outrage about bullying until some kid jumps off a bridge? Suddenly we’re having this dialog? The problem is that we still sanction the belief that homosexuality is sinful, thus allowing people to feel entitled to their hateful opinions and fueling the perception that it’s okay to broadcast gays kissing but heterosexuals are entitled to their privacy.

Posted by josefski | Report as abusive
 

What a completely incompetent article. Gays are 10% of the population , you forgot to add in the rest of the LGBT and while you are at it throw in the murder rate. I’m not sure you want to go in to military suicides since Reuters were the last to report it even when the VA was trying to deny the 1000 attempts a month and no one knows if they were gay or not. Oh ignore that most suicide reports don’t give reasons for suicides and that many of the suicides are by people that AREN’T out and you can see this is an article so poor it’s unworthy of being printed. Total Fail.

Posted by DarlieB | Report as abusive
 

RexMax46, well said. Below is my take on this entire issue. I tried several times to post this on Fox Nation, but it was never approved (big surprise). Case-in-point of the barriers we are facing. Also, I am perplexed by Gregg’s intent here. It seems like anytime there is a gay issue, a myriad of “Well you are not the only ones…” diatribes surface. We don’t get anywhere with these kinds of responses. In any case, here goes:

The core of what we are facing here, unfortunately, is political. I hate politics, and I hate politicians even more. But, also unfortunately, the right-wing mentality does not separate church and state. Therefore, the operational equation goes like this:

Conservative Religion = Conservative Leaders = Narrow-mindedness = Politically-Positioned Educational Failures = Prejudices = Self-Hate and Bullying = Loss of EITHER Life itself or Quality of Life. Period.

Now, getting made fun of because you are overweight, or short, or black, or white, or whatever makes you “different”…this is difficult for any child. (Note: gay people are also overweight, short, black, white, etc., so this bullying applies here too). However, ADD TO THAT the shame you are MADE TO FEEL for being gay…shame that is CONSISTENTLY underscored by the conservative moment in this country and passed from its leaders, to the communities, to the parents, to the children. Conservative groups send the messages loud and clear, from fighting to overturn equality-based legislation to campaigning AGAINST tolerance in our schools. Then ADD TO THAT things like the fear of being rejected by your family, or what’s worse, actually being rejected; Being abandoned by your peers and/or subjected to even MORE harassment; The inability to seek comfort in your own faith because its leaders (NOT GOD) have condemned you and are insisting that you are CHOOSING to be gay, and “being” gay is damnable, so therefore warning that you must sacrifice partnership and any hopes for companionship and a family of your own. “Being gay is a choice, we think. But even if it’s not, then being gay in action is still wrong. So in order for us to accept you, and for God to approve of you, you must live your life alone with no partnership, intimacy, companionship, or a family of your own. Your straight peers can have this, but you can’t, because it’s a sin.” Promising hope for a fulfilling future for our gay youth, don’t you think?

So let’s add this up: Let’s take an “awkward” 13 year-old who is a different ethnicity than the majority of other students in his school…maybe has glasses, or braces, is a little shorter than average, doesn’t wear the designer clothes that the other kids wear, is a different religion than most, is quiet, and is a good student. Odds are this child will most likely be picked on. That in and of itself is painful. Oh but wait…I forgot: He’s gay. So add to the mix: Increased loss of self-worth, instillation of self-hatred and shame, fear of possible–and too often actual–familial rejection, worries of possible social repercussions, additional harassment, bullying, isolation, homelessness (yes–that does happen), personal safety/security, religious abandonment, and warnings about any kind of “morally acceptable” future involving dating and companionship. Don’t think kids/teenagers think about all this? Think again. How is anyone, much less a child, supposed to handle all of that?? The feelings self-hatred and isolation are debilitating enough alone WITHOUT any bullying. I challenge anyone to parallel this type of society-inflicted suffering for a child. This is what makes THIS ISSUE in need of immediate attention. No, Gregg, this is not something new. And that is a sad fact that only reinforces the need to act now. This has gone on far too long.

This country needs to wake up, and again, it has to happen NOW. I am gay. Are any of you that continue to downplay the significance of this issue? How many of you have experienced this firsthand? How many of you have sat in your Church and watched members of your family sign a petition being passed around to prevent you from ever having the ability to adopt a child while listening to a sermon about how wrong–and “disgusting”–YOU are? Do you have any idea what that does to a person? To a child? Now sit there and tell me I chose this, or better yet, tell me that I have to live the rest of my life alone or else I will be damned by God and deemed morally deplorable by the rest of you. And after you tell me that, think about how a 13 year-old would feel hearing that. Those who continue to turn the other cheek to the legitimacy of gay equality are continuing to contribute to the very ignorance that is destroying so many lives out there right now. And then they have the audacity to reference a gay agenda, or question why conservative politicians and religious leaders have accountability here? Are you serious? Their words become your words, and you are passing these words to your children. Maybe someday those that continue to fight this issue will be on the other side of the fence, and it will be their child who is no longer here. Maybe then this will all sink in.

Posted by gmb328xi | Report as abusive
 

A very good, balanced and well-informed article. In one sense, media itself is quite biased to portray homosexuals are always oppressed !

The deaths are very sad, and especially if they are younger lads. I wish they gather courage to seek counseling before this extreme step… :(

Posted by reev | Report as abusive
 

What a poorly researched and argued article. When he asks: “But do heterosexual youth who are rejected by their families also have elevated suicide-attempt rates? Being rejected by your family would be traumatic regardless of the reason” the implication is that gay and straight kids get rejected by their family at similar rates.
I defy Mr. Easterbrook to find anyone who has even been thrown out of his or her house because or their heterosexual orientation. (pregnancy is about what you’ve done, not who you are.) I defy him to find any straight person who cites the fact of rejection related to his or her heterosexuality as the reason he or she contemplated or committed suicide.
I came out to liberal parents at 16, but even I went through several years of inner torment before then. I was a popular, unbullied kid. But at the onset of puberty, I “knew” that I was the worse thing you could be, and it took years to get over that. If I considered suicide, you can be sure that 95% of other gays did. All Mr. Easterbrook had to do was ask a few of us.

Posted by markolmsted | Report as abusive
 

This post obviously has flawed logic and is a bad use of statistics. If gay people are more likely to kill themselves than non-gay people, then you can’t base the rate of gay suicide on the percentage of the general population that is gay. That would only work if gay people were EQUALLY likely to kill themselves as non-gay people.

That’s like saying if 5% of the world’s population is over 65 years old, 5% of people who died of natural causes are over 65. No, people over 65 are more likely to die of natural causes so they will take up a higher percentage of those deaths.

Posted by bartsz | Report as abusive
 

I tend to agree with a lot of what the author writes, but I think he misses the boat on occasion. This is one of those occasions. He poses the question as, “Does the occurrence of a gay person’s suicide show any larger trend?” In reality, I believe the question really is, “Are gay and lesbian youth more likely to commit suicide compared to non-gay and non-lesbian youth?”

No, one instance does not prove a trend. Neither do two, or three, or four instances. Mr. Easterbrook is correct on that account. I’m not sure why he uses the numbers he does to illustrate that point, however. If 4,000 youth commit suicide each year, and if 3-4% of youth are gay or lesbian, then yes, 150 gay or lesbians youth will commit suicide this year. However, that assumes the numbers are proportional, which is precisely the issue: are the suicide rates of the two groups the same, or significantly different?

The author even makes a point of this in reference to military suicides: “Last year suicides made up nearly 25 percent of the deaths of Texans younger than 35 who served in the military. That percentage is more than twice the rate of suicide in the comparable civilian population.” The key is the last sentence of that quote. It was more than twice the rate of non-military suicides.

The author should be asking if the rate of gay and lesbian youth suicide is greater than the rate of non-gay and non-lesbian youth suicide. Instead, Mr. Easterbrook writes an article on how one incident does not mean a trend is occurring.

Mr. Easterbrook, I would rather have seen you explore whether the rate of gay and lesbian youth suicide is comparable or out of proportion to the rate of non-gay and non-lesbian youth suicide. If there has not been any research on the subject, fine, just tell us. Another commenter pointed out there has been some research on risk factors specific to gay and lesbian youth, but that does not necessarily mean the suicide rate will be out of proportion.

In closing, just as one or two incidents do not mean a trend is occurring, they do not mean a trend is not occurring, either. That is the real issue here.

Posted by 4lenza | Report as abusive
 

The author of this article failed to read properly what the statistics on how large the LGBT population in the US is. 3-4% is a correct percentage when talking about the population that admits and is open about being LGBT. If you look further into the statistics you will find that 10-15% reportedly are actually LGBT. The stats say that 10-15% have had a same sex sexual experience or attraction which meets the definition of some one who is bisexual at minimum and not straight. You also have to assume with any study on LGBT that since the issue is highly stigmatized that there will be some dishonesty in the answers. So 10-15% is even a low number when talking about how many Americans are LGBT.

Posted by shaggy03 | Report as abusive
 

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