One of my first assignments as a college student journalist for the Brown Daily Herald was covering the suicide of a sophomore, who killed herself while home for October break. I remember feeling sick to my stomach as I walked to the girl's dormitory to interview her shocked, grieving friends. About 10 of us gathered in the dorm's common area, sitting in a circle. I scribbled notes as the dorm mates described an intelligent, curious, and socially conscious young woman. But when I pressed, somewhat uncomfortably, for details on the victim's emotional state and the recent events in her life, the friends were hesitant to speculate as to why, exactly, she had killed herself.
They were correct to be wary of my questions–and of the entire endeavor of "explaining" a suicide in a 600-word news article. Doctors, social workers, and researchers know that every suicide is unique and incredibly complex; there is rarely one simple reason why a person decides they no longer want to live. In a Slate review of the new documentary "Bully," Emily Bazelon does an excellent job complicating the picture of suicide the media so often paint, noting it's all too easy to blame schools after a tragic death, when, in fact, many suicidal teens are suffering not only from peer bullying, but also from mental illness, learning disabilities, and unsupportive home environments.
"Bully" devotes a lot of time to the story of 17-year old Tyler Long, whose parents–among the film's heroes–are suing his school district in the wake of Tyler's suicide. But as Bazelon reveals, the film never mentions that Tyler was on the Autism spectrum and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD, nor that he sometimes picked fights at school and that his parents strongly suspected he was considering suicide, but didn't tell his therapist about it. What's more, Tyler's suicide note, addressed to his family, didn't mention bullying at all, and instead focused on their lack of support. "I don’t have a supporting family or friends for that matter," Tyler wrote. "You think I am worthless and pathetic. All I wanted was acceptance and kindness, but no I didn’t get love."
Jesse Green's 2010 New York article about Teddy Graubard, a 17-year old private school student who jumped to his death after being caught cheating, does an excellent job of showing just how complicated it can be to suss out why a teenager with Asperger's syndrome and a history of mental health issues kills himself.
The point is not that we shouldn't feel awfully, terribly sympathetic with suicidal teens and their devastated parents. We should. And of course, schools need to do everything in their power to help students feel safe and supported, both by cracking down on bullying and by referring kids (both the bullied and bully-ers) to in and out-of-school mental health services. The problem is the over-simplification of this issue in the public conversation, which actually makes it more difficult for schools and governments to address teen suicide rationally.
We saw this a lot around the story of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers freshman who killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly filmed him making out with an older man. My Nation colleague Richard Kim has been eloquent on this point: The prosecution and conviction of Ravi had less to do with evidence that his actions led directly to Clementi's death, and more to do with moral panic over young people, bullying, technology, and sex. Richard writes:
Among the things blotted out by the trial and media circus is the enduring mystery of why Tyler Clementi committed suicide. He had an older, gay brother with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. His parents' reaction to his sexual orientation was mixed; his father was cool, his mother not so much, but they were still in regular and civil communication. He was clearly vexed about what Dharun Ravi had done, but was discussing what to do about it with a friend, the RA and online message boards. There’s nothing in these records that indicated he was suicidal or even beyond appropriately anxious about a situation to which he himself saw a resolution within reach (a new room). He wasn’t the victim of bullying across campus, and although he was socially shy, he was also somewhat sexually daring. He had four years of college, and a life, to look forward to—and indeed, until his Facebook post announcing his suicide, he was doing just that.
There are all too many cases of gay teenagers whose lives have been made intolerably miserable and who are driven to suicide by the harassment and violence of parents, family, fellow students, teachers and other authority figures. This is not transparently one of them.
In the wake of Clementi's suicide, New Jersey passed aggressive legislation requiring schools to document and address all cases of alleged bullying of students, whether they take place in or outside of school, or online (via Facebook, MySpace, email, etc.). As the Newark Star Ledger reports, the law, which did not include much extra funding for mental health services, has led to complaints from parents that it doesn't do enough, and complaints from school officials that it imposes a heavy paperwork burden without providing much explanation of how, exactly, to define bullying, or support to enable schools to monitor and address it effectively:
Guidance counselors and teachers face a steep challenge in trying to draw the line between conflict and bullying.
One suspected bullying incident in Roxbury involved two kindergartners fighting over crayons, and another stemmed from two intermediate school students excluding a third from their lunch table. The crayons case was ruled not to be bullying, but the lunch-table incident was, said Roxbury anti-bullying coordinator Phyllis Prestamo.
I'm not going to propose a solution to bullying or teen suicide, because I obviously don't think there is any kind of silver bullet, beyond supportive, caring families and schools, and expanding access to affordable, high-quality mental health care. It's just important to note that law suits, hate crime legislation, and education policy cannot be the only avenues for addressing these problems. I really do hope the Affordable Care Act, which will help a lot, is not overturned.