The Suicide Awareness Conundrum

By Lucas Grindley

Originally published on Advocate.com November 16 2011 4:00 AM ET

 The death of Jamey Rodemeyer in September was one of those rare tragedies that also became a catalyst for change. The 14-year-old, who was subjected to repeated antigay bullying, killed himself because, as he said in posts online, “I felt like I could never escape.” The subsequent outrage inspired thousands of tributes via social media, a piece of legislation in his name, and a performance in his honor by Lady Gaga, who shared her concerns about bullying with the president of the United States.

But the hard truth is that suicide spreads like a virus — a “contagion,” in the words of the experts — and that same sincere tribute that has people mad enough to demand changes in our schools could also lead to more suicides by LGBT youth.

“Most people in a healthy state of mind won’t be influenced to take their own life after watching a heartfelt memorial tribute,” says David McFarland, interim executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicide among LGBT and questioning young people. “But a person whose thoughts and values are out of order and who may already be thinking about suicide may be influenced to take their own life in the hope of getting similar attention.”

The Trevor Project doesn’t condemn any of these memorials, though, because they do a lot of good. The It Gets Better Project, for example, was a response to a wave of suicides that shocked the nation last year. But while headlines were multiplying in 2010, calls spiked to the Trevor Project’s suicide prevention hotline (866-4-U-TREVOR). McFarland sees that as proof “that suicide contagion as a media-related phenomenon is real.”

Memorials to kids who have been lost should come with information about where to get help, the Trevor Project advises. Calls to the hotline will increase, perhaps indicating a contagion at work, but McFarland says talking is the best option for kids confused by headlines.