Stories on cable and network news, articles in The New York Times, a cover of People magazine—the story of the suicides of nine LGBT teens (as of this writing) dominated the news media in the fall. Because many of the deaths were related to antigay bullying and harassment, the moment seemed to be a teachable one—the appropriate opportunity for prevention and antibullying advocates to bring these issues to the public’s attention. Instead, the news coverage is itself a cause for concern for some. Media reports can have the opposite of the intended prevention effect, says Ann Haas, the director of prevention projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“We need to be careful in the way that we talk about these cases,” Haas says. “Notoriety about suicides can be a factor in what we call ‘contagion.’ The messages becomes that suicide is a normal response to a terrible experience.” Prevention experts warn that contagion can actually increase the number of incidents.
While there is no indication that any of the recent bullying-related teen suicides—which took place across the country—were related to each other, Haas references “clusters,” one of which took place in 2001 near her home in Maine.
“The youth who first committed suicide was described in a very positive way [by the media]. There was a lot of attention,” Haas says. “In the next 18 months, there were five additional suicides.”
Another difficulty stems from the lack of conclusive data with regard to LGBT people. The AFSP reports that approximately 345 Americans ages 15 to 24 take their own lives per month. A common assumption that often finds its way into reporting is that gays commit suicide in greater numbers. While some respected studies indicate gay youths are more likely to make the attempt, no trustworthy evidence yet exists that shows gay youths kill themselves at a higher rate than their straight peers. Some conclusions may come to light in January, when an expert consensus report on LGBT suicide will be published in the Journal of Homosexuality.
Conclusive data on gay suicides doesn’t exist because researchers often cannot determine a person’s sexual orientation after death, says Laura McGinnis, communications director for the Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide-prevention hotline for youths.
“It’s so difficult to get that research done because many families don’t accept their child is LGBT, or families don’t want that as the only story told about their child,” McGinnis says.
McGinnis agrees with Haas that the media is quick to latch on to the narrative that gay teens are killing themselves in disproportionate numbers. Nonetheless, she says there has been an uptick in calls to the Trevor hotline.
“We have seen an increased volume,” she says of the phone traffic. “That doesn’t necessarily mean more people than usual are thinking about attempting suicide. But there are more people finding the resources, and we’re happy about that.”