Many years ago I was apprenticing as a cub reporter at a Montreal daily paper when the news room received a report of two suicides in the city’s subway system. Turning to the reporter who was training me, a grizzled, chain-smoking curmudgeon who typed with two fingers as fast as a jackhammer, I was surprised when he grunted, “Ain’t news. We never publish that stuff. Just makes if happen more.” The story never made it into the paper that day, nor have I ever seen a report on the dozen or more suicides that occur every year in Montreal’s subway.
As the tally of adolescent girls and boys who are committing suicide in very public ways is growing, I’m beginning to wonder whether we are providing young people in crisis a terrible and tragic solution to their problem, one that we have a hand in creating.
The way we approach traumatic events like bullying, sexual abuse, and exposure to war is influenced by what we are shown and the social norms that we adopt that guide our behavior. Have you ever wondered why there were so many drive-by shootings a few years ago, and now almost none? Or why before Columbine made school shootings famous, they were practically unheard of? At what point are we, and our insatiable appetite for these macabre events, creating the recipe book for destructive self-expression? When we stop reporting these events, their incidence may decrease.
That reporter who was mentoring me on the news desk was actually right (about a lot of things). The more we talk about suicide, the more likely we are to see people trying it. One need only visit some of North America’s aboriginal communities to know the tragic consequences of young people using suicide as a way of coping with hopelessness and racism. Sadly, many of these communities have rates that are ten times national averages, and the problem persists despite interventions. When children are looking for effective coping strategies, they tend to look to their peers for ideas.
I am very much an advocate of programs like PREVNet and other anti-bullying organizations that are changing the cultures of schools and creating safer, more accommodating environments for our children. I also, though, am beginning to realize that we should no longer announce a child’s suicide that results from bullying. Whether we like it or not, we may be contributing to the problem of suicides among adolescents the more we try to make people aware they are happening.
As odd as it sounds, acts of self-destruction can actually bring with them a powerful sense of control and challenge one’s identity as the victim. School shooters follow the same path, motivated by the same need for publicity as the young women who are using the Internet to tell their stories and announce their impending deaths. Both are following a script that we are writing for them.
The solution is already in front of us. First, let’s agree that this is a serious problem and stop deciding social policy based on a sample size of one. By that I mean, we shouldn’t need the deaths of Amanda Todd, Eden Wormer or Phoebe Prince to convince us to fund programs that address the unrelenting violence that teens can perpetrate on one another through the web.
Second, we should continue to change the culture of our schools so that they are safe, without becoming so illogical in our condemnation of acts of normal aggression that six-year-olds are accused of bullying when they have a snowball fight and someone loses.
And third, I’d prefer we gave our children an alternative way to cope than silence or violence. Despite his recent tirades, I think Dan Savage is saving the lives of a lot of teenagers by making it cool to see themselves as better than the bullies. His “It Gets Better” Project reminds children that with time the bullying stops. The interesting thing about Savage’s approach (whether you agree with it or not) is that it gives kids an identity that is very powerful. They are part of a movement, a group of resistance fighters who can fantasize about the slow slide into oblivion most of their tormenters will experience once they leave high school and realize the world is pretty intolerant of their kind of ignorance. In this battle for survival, the geeks will win as surely as the Big Bang Theory has become a number one comedy series.
If we want to stop the suicides that happen because of bullying, we may first have to stop making them news.