Are Gay Rights & Bullying Advocates, Media Contributing to Suicide Contagion?

Posted by on September 30, 2010

San Francisco gay rights advocate Michael Petrelis is challenging Kevin Jennings and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) to speak out about what he describes as “four anti-gay bullying suicides” this month.  

Mr. Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education for Safe and Drug Free Schools and the founder of GLSEN, and GLSEN’s current leadership have been under recent fire by gay rights advocates in the past several days, including an online article today entitled, “Why Are Kevin Jennings + GLSEN Completely Silent On September’s 4 Gay Bullying Suicides?

But Mr. Petrelis also disclosed a personal communication between him and GLSEN saying GLSEN is privately expressing concern about not wanting to contribute to suicide contagion.

GLSEN Reportedly in “Fear of Suicide Contagion”

Mr. Petrelis, a veteran gay and aids human rights advocate, attributed the following quote to GLSEN’s spokesperson, Daryl Presgraves:

“We have not issued a statement. We are very concerned, obviously. But out of fear of suicide contagion, we have chosen to be cautious in our public response. I assure you we are working behind the scenes to address these specific incidences, but we are trying to tread carefully. We will have much to say in the coming weeks, including a new nationwide effort to make schools safer for LGBT youth. We want to make sure we do and say the right thing.”

Are Social Media, Mainstream Media, and Gay and Anti-Bullying Activists Contributing to Suicide Contagion?

 This raises a legitimate question:

Could all of the traditional and social media focus, including the repeated references by anti-bullying and gay rights advocates to bullycide, LGBT suicides, and other high profile teen suicides actually be contributing to what has been attributed as a recent uptick in these incidents?

Twitter has been hopping with messages from around the world on these suicides, anti-gay issues, anti-bullying, and related tweets in recent weeks.  Related news stories can be found almost daily in cable, network, and print news.  And as noted above, online stories include increasing pressure from gay activists on President Obama’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug Free Schools, Kevin Jennings and now GLSEN, for not being more vocal enough on gay rights issues.

Suicide Experts Warn of “Romanticizing Suicide” and “Idealizing Those Who Take Their Own Lives” as Possibly Encouraging Others

The American Foundation for  Suicide Prevention, American Association of Suicidology, and Annenberg Public Policy Center developed Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media  in cooperation with the Office of Surgeon General, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Mental Health, and other organizations. 

Their Recommendations to the Media include:

“Research finds an increase in suicide by readers or viewers when:

  1. The number of stories about individual suicides increases
  2. A particular death is reported at length or in many stories
  3. The story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast
  4. The headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic”

Their recommendations also note:

  1. Research suggests that inadvertently romanticizing suicide or idealizing those who take their own lives by portraying suicide as a heroic or romantic act may encourage others to identify with the victim.
  2. Exposure to suicide method through media reports can encourage vulnerable individuals to imitate it.
  3. Clinicians believe the danger is even greater if there is a detailed description of the method. Research indicates that detailed descriptions or pictures of the location or site of a suicide encourage imitation.
  4. Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy or high-achieving person may encourage identification with the victim.

The rest of this seven page report has what appears to be very solid recommendations.  It seems like a good time for our national media and others to review their ethical and professional guidelines when addressing “bullying” and, in particular, suicides being attributed to bullying.

My Take

GLSEN’s reported concern about suicide contagion seems right on target to me.  Ironically, it also reinforces what I have been blogging in recent month to bring some balance and common sense to the discussion of bullying. 

I have voiced politically-incorrect professional perspectives about the media hype and craze about bullying, as well as recent “bullycide” and teen suicides.  And I have repeatedly expressed concern about the politicization of school safety.  I have also been increasingly critical about the skewed federal policy and funding toward bullying and “school climate surveys” by the U.S. Department of Education. 

As I have repeatedly — repeatedly —said, bullying is an important issue which should be a part of a comprehensive approach to school safety.  I also believe LGBT students deserve the same protection all students deserve in school:  The right to learn in a safe, secure, and orderly school.  Teen mental health issues, including teen suicides, must also be a focal point and not oversimplified by labeling as “bullying.”    

But addressing these issues must be done in a balanced, comprehensive, professional, non-political, and responsible manner.  How we address these issues must be as important as if we address these issues.  Otherwise, GLSEN’s reported concern about contributing to the contagion effect may be a very real, and very sad, reality.

What say you?

Ken Trump

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