Gay suicides and media hype
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.