Op-ed: What Spirit Day Can Do About Suicide

Brittany McMillan founded Spirit Day while still in high school, and she shares the message she hopes to send LGBT teenagers who feel marginalized.

BY Brittany McMillan

October 01 2012 3:30 AM ET

Brittany McMillan

I was browsing my Tumblr blog in late September of 2010 when I came across several articles about LGBT teens who had lost their lives to suicide. Every day for a week, it seemed like there was a new suicide every time I logged in. And it made me sick.

I wanted to do something to spread awareness about the loss of these teenagers, and I wanted to show support for anyone going through similar problems. Being diagnosed with depression myself, I knew firsthand what it’s like to feel suicidal.

There have been times in my life when I made attempts, and during other periods a single day didn’t pass by without thinking about it — at least three times. For me, depression was a result of imbalanced chemicals in my brain, something neither I nor anyone around me could control. But for some of these teens, their depression was oftentimes made worse by another person, a person who had full control over the situation, who could choose whether or not to bully.

It was so wrong. I couldn’t understand what these teens had been through, and I wanted to make a change. So two years ago, when I started Spirit Day in response to those suicides of LGBT or LGBT-perceived youth, I didn’t know how people around me would react. I figured they would just brush it off; after all, homophobic slurs weren’t exactly uncommon in my high school. But to my surprise, people actually took notice and decided to make a change.

I have been correcting people who use “gay” and “stupid” as synonymous terms for most of my life. But I don’t feel like I ever got through to them until Spirit Day. Suddenly, all these people who nodded their heads and said they understood actually understood. They understood the effects that slurs can have, even if they didn’t “mean it like that.” I could finally explain to them that calling something “gay” when what they really meant was “dumb” was sending a message to others that the word comes with a negative connotation.

As a result of using “gay” to describe something that was undeserving of respect, teens who are gay felt that they were undeserving of respect. Those feelings can lead to self-hatred and fear of who they really are. And, unfortunately, a combination of negative internal and external environments could contribute to depression and low self-esteem for LGBT young people.

You’re probably wondering why you should participate in Spirit Day (whether that is for a first, second, or third time). But to be honest, it’s really up to you to decide. I can’t tell you why you should wear purple, but I can tell you why I’m choosing to wear purple.

Part of my Spirit Day is spent sharing the stories of the young people who lost their lives to suicide. I tell people their names and their ages and what happened in their lives that made them feel like there was no way out. The stories are often shocking and saddening, but that’s what sticks in people’s minds. That’s what they remember. And when people take the time to hear these stories, they learn to more carefully consider their actions, and they stand up in support of all young people.

This past year, when I graduated, I noticed a huge change in my peers’ behavior. I noticed that fewer people were using homophobic slurs, and more people were open about their acceptance of LGBT people. It wasn’t only my school that changed. It was also my family and my workplace and my church. It was the people who sent me emails to say they’d supported Spirit Day and how much they appreciated it. It was the millions of people around the world who supported Spirit Day and the pictures and videos that showed up on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. All around me, people were changing their mindsets, and it was all because people decided to take a stand by wearing purple.

In 2010, 2 million people participated in Spirit Day. In 2011, 3 million people participated. We have been preparing for this year for a very long time. We’re starting to get the word out early, and we’ve brainstormed more ways that you can participate. We have more events and more partners, including some fantastic ambassadors.

Spirit Day 2012 is going to be huge, and we’d love for you to be a part of it. Wear purple on October 19. Show your support for the LGBT community and take a stand against bullying. Everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, or gender identity, is important to someone.

There are quiet struggles happening all around you. But please reach out, because no one should feel like they don’t belong or don’t matter, especially not because of who they are.

 

BRITTANY McMILLAN is the founder of Spirit Day and was named one of The Advocate’s 40 Under 40.

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