Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

What's Your Reason?

What's a compelling message to those in need of help?

When the Glee episode "On My Way" aired two weeks ago, my Facebook feed lit up—all of my colleagues in suicide prevention had something to say.

Most of their comments were about what happened in the first few minutes of the show. Dave Karofsky's suicide attempt, following a series of events culminating in bullying focused on his sexuality, was laid out in pretty explicit detail. Such unsafe messaging, particularly on such a popular show, is tough for suicide prevention experts to watch. We know that it is dangerous to show young people exactly how they can take their own lives.

But it wasn't until this week that I heard a reaction from someone who's not a suicide prevention expert. My friend Nancy, a middle school teacher, was catching up on the season finale on DVR. What stood out to her was the way that Mr. Schue talked with the New Directions kids about their futures.

He shared that he, too, had struggled with suicidal thinking when he was in high school. And he asked each of the kids to share something they were looking forward to, 10 years down the line.

My friend Nancy loved this scene—but partly because I'd primed her a little. I'd been telling her, just a few days before she watched the episode, about a new campaign being organized by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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The Lifeline is asking people—regular people, like you and me—to make posters that show a reason to call. For many, the reason to call is that they wish their friend, or parent, or sibling had called. For others, the reason is something to hope for, the idea that things will get better.

It took me the whole episode, all the tribute songs to Dave Karofsky, to decide on my reason to call.

For me, the message of this episode is strength, especially strength in adversity. And, for me, the reason to call is to be strong at the broken places.

There's a really thoughtful account of why this episode went too far, why continuing to dwell on gay teen suicide is part of the problem, not the solution. The emphasis on the future—that it gets better, some day—may not really resonate with teens. A persuasive argument can be made that teens aren't truly capable of thinking about the future (as this episode shows so clearly in its final scene).

At the same time, it was this over-the-top show, all about teenagers and so emotionally evocative, that helped me tune into the emotions of many struggling with suicidal thoughts. Emotionally, suicidality is when the broken places outweigh any strength. No matter how strong a person may be, feeling broken, unloved, or unacceptable can be crushing.

If you have a reason to call, please consider making a poster, taking a picture, and putting in up here. And, if you have thoughts to share about how Glee continues to portray gay teen suicide, share them here.

 

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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