When I first read about Rutgers student Tyler Clementi's death, I sat stunned at my computer and uttered one word over and over: "Wow." "Wow" as I read about what Tyler's fellow students did (secretly placed a camera in his room to record a sexual encounter, which they then broadcast to the free world). "Wow" as I read that Tyler posted a suicide note on his Facebook page. "Wow" as I read the description of how Tyler chose to end his life.
In so many ways, Tyler Clementi's death was preventable. I don't say that to place blame, but to call our collective attention. I was angry and heartbroken as I read about Tyler's death, and I didn't know him. I can't imagine how his friends and family must feel.
I found myself asking a lot of questions in between the "Wow's." What was going through the heads of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei when they decided to secretly tape Tyler? Was there anyone else they told who could have said, ‘That sounds like the stupidest idea ever.'? Wasn't there anyone on that bridge who could have gone up to Tyler and asked him if he was okay? Wasn't there anyone on Facebook who could have called 911 and said, ‘My friend is about to jump off the George Washington Bridge. Please try to help him.'
Many have responded to Tyler's death by linking bullying to suicide. But, by simplifying the cause of Tyler's death to bullying, we leave out the other factors that contributed to his suicide.
We also send a dangerous message to young people who are bullied. There's a distinction to make right now, at a time when many eyes and ears are tuning into the messages in the media. If we keep telling the story that bullying causes suicide, we make it okay for people who are bullied to die by suicide.
Let's stop that. Right now.
Tyler's death led to a great mobilization over the last week. Many powerful people have used new media to create messages to make sure that LGBT youth, who may be bullied because of their sexuality or because of perceptions about their sexuality, know that being gay, or being bullied about being gay, is not a reason to end your life.
The message "It Gets Better" was crafted a few weeks ago by sex columnist Dan Savage. Many have uploaded short videos to YouTube that share their struggles as youth and how things got better as they got older.
A friend of mine uploaded his own video to YouTube. David challenged the "It Gets Better" message. He said: "It doesn't get better, but you get stronger. What gets better isn't the world around us, but our abilities to cope with the world."
I'm with David. But, I'd also hope that it's not only our abilities to cope with the world that get better, but our abilities to be better humans.
Suicide prevention is, essentially, a very human thing to do.
I’m more than a little concerned that the loudest question in my head over the last week was: What kind of world do we live in that allows these things to happen? Yes, I'd like to see a world with people who have better coping skills. But, even more than that, I'd like to see a world with better people.
Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved