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Thursday, March 3, 2011

does it get better?: youth, sexuality, & suicide

by Kaleigh

In the last months of 2010, the United States’ media has been flooded with stories of queer youth, bullying, and suicide.  The recent influx of queer youth suicides has brought widespread attention to the experiences of hatred that queer youths have endured as a result of the perpetuation of heterosexism in mainstream American culture, despite the fact that this issue was named more than a decade ago.  Hershberger, Pilkington, and D’Augelli (1997) broke ground by explaining how sexual orientation plays a role in youth suicide, when previous studies merely mentioned the higher instances of suicidal behaviors in queer youth.  In 1999, medical and public health professionals identified lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning youths to be 3.41 times more likely to report attempting suicide than their heterosexual peers (Garland & Zigler, 1999).  Given these empirical understandings, it is a wonder that the general public hasn’t engaged in discourse on queer youth suicide until the end of the year 2010.

            In reaction to the societal outpour of emotive responses surrounding LGBTQ youth suicide, bloggers, vloggers, and journalists have taken to the internet to engage in discussions on the issue.  One of the most notable responses to the recent tragedies has been the formation of the “It Gets Better Project” by columnist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller.  The internet campaign to raise awareness on LGBTQ youth suicide and bullying was started by Savage and Miller, who made a Youtube video to explain to queer youths who are bullied in middle and high school that “it gets better” (Savage & Miller, 2010). 

The campaign has since gained massive notoriety, with such people as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Representative Nancy Pelosi and numerous Hollywood celebrities all contributing videos ascertaining that “it gets better” (Savage & Miller, 2010).   The “It Gets Better Project” has both been critically acclaimed by the liberal media and deeply criticized in the radical queer community.  In this essay, I will explore these opposing viewpoints through the lens of youth suicide prevention research, and will analyze the ways in which “It Gets Better” both aligns with empirical prevention findings, as well as how it is likely to be ineffective as a means for prevention.  Finally, utilizing these viewpoints, I will synthesize this knowledge into my personal stance on “It Gets Better.”

The “It Gets Better Project” has been embraced on a national level as a means to provide queer youths with hope, which is, perhaps, the key element of IGBP.  In a blog post, Savage responded to some of the criticism he had been receiving by saying, “The point of the videos is to give despairing kids in impossible situations a little thing called hope,” (2010).  Hope is an essential factor when assessing risk of suicide, because hopelessness has consistently been found to be a correlate with suicidal ideation and behaviors (Gould, Greenberg, Velting, & Shaffer, 2003). 

Additionally, a construct that is intrinsic in Savage’s statement is the idea of youths in crisis.  Crisis interventions have been one of the most widely utilized prevention strategies for suicide (Garland & Zigler, 1993).  The rationale for these interventions, such as hotline services, is that the youth is able to access support immediately through accessible means (Gould et al., 2003).  The theoretical foundation of crisis interventions aligns with the goal of “It Gets Better,” in that IGBP was formulated to provide an expansive network of support for queer youths at the click of a mouse.  This is similar to hotline crisis intervention strategies, and is perhaps the method of crisis intervention of the future. 

As the internet has become increasingly more available and accessible over the past two decades, the idea of community has been reinvented and redefined to reflect the virtual communities of the internet, such as the Youtube vlogging community.  Youtube provides an instantaneous community for discussion and support (Burgess & Green, 2008).  IGBP has tapped into this emerging form of community and has provided a space of positivity and support for queer youths in moments of desperation, which is at the very heart of the reasoning behind crisis intervention strategies.

The creation of a Youtube community for LGBTQ youths also has positive implications for social support.  Access to culturally relevant means of support has been found to be a protective factor for suicidal behaviors in queer youth (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001).  Affirming sources of support for queer youths, such as IGBP, decrease feelings of isolation and aid youths in the coming out process (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001).  The “It Gets Better Project” on Youtube provides social support unlike any other, where youths can hear from and engage with their peers, as well as adults whom they respect, from all over the world.

Despite the various seemingly positive contributions that IGBP has provided to LGBTQ youths in crisis, numerous critiques from the radical queer and feminist communities have surfaced on the internet in conversations on blogs and independent news sources.  One of the most circulated blogs was an exhaustive list written by Zoe Melisa, which complicates the intentions of IGBP by introducing the constructs of privilege, trivialization, safety, and the elimination of differences (2010).  The essential argument against “It Gets Better” is that there is so much more complexity in the issue of queer youth suicide and a band-aid of false hope isn’t going to affect change on a systemic level.

Through a prevention lens, despite the prominence of crisis interventions for suicide in the mental health community, results have been inconclusive regarding the effectiveness of this strategy (Gould et al., 2003).  The continual lack of significance in the efficacy findings on crisis intervention is an indicator that these types of interventions alone are not the answer to preventing LGBTQ youth suicide.  Savage (2010) has explicitly stated that IGBP’s goal is to provide hope and support for queer youths in crisis, so the project can thusly be understood as a crisis intervention strategy.  Empirical evidence has consistently shown that crisis interventions have yet to be statistically significantly effective, therefore we can hypothesize that IGBP may not be effective, either.

“It Gets Better” also aims to increase awareness of LGBTQ youth suicide through the media, which has potentially problematic repercussions for the youths themselves.  Findings have indicated that the media’s focus on LGBTQ issues can cause queer youths to experience greater levels of internal stress, which in turn increases risk for suicide (Morrison & L’Heureux, 2001).  There is also the likelihood of contagion, which is the phenomenon of individuals becoming aware of suicides, and the increase in instances of suicide following that awareness (Gould et al., 2003).  IGBP has attempted to provide support and awareness for queer youth, but the campaign may be doing just the opposite by increasing sexual orientation related stress in queer youths.

Furthermore, “It Gets Better” lacks to acknowledge the complexity of youths’ experiences with suicide.  It may be one step in the right direction to understand youth suicide through the lens of sexual orientation, but an integral facet of youth suicide is also race.  Native American male youths have the highest rates of suicide and Latino/a youths have the highest rates of suicidal ideation and attempts (Gould et al., 2003).  IGBP does not mention the component of race in youth suicide anywhere on their website, and it is rarely (if ever) directly discussed in the videos being submitted to the project.  The simplification of queer youth suicide doesn’t take intersectionality into consideration, which subsequently limits how youths can identify with the faux support of the campaign.

Given the research that has gone into this essay, I have had the opportunity to analyze the “It Gets Better Project” from the two opposing sides at the forefront of debate.  While I value the various opinions that have been voiced regarding IGBP, it has been useful to understand the project through a clinical prevention lens.  In the end, regardless of what our opinions are on an issue based on our philosophical assumptions, if something works, it works.  It was my goal in this essay to explore whether “It Gets Better” can really accomplish what they have set out to accomplish.

In reviewing the literature on LGBTQ youth suicide prevention, and youth suicide prevention in general, it became clear to me that the “It Gets Better Project” is not likely to have as positive of an effect for queer youths, in terms of suicide prevention, as the liberal media might have the public believe.  As stated previously, this kind of intervention has not conclusively been shown to be effective.  More importantly, the research conducted by Morrison & L’Heureux (2001) illuminated how this kind of media attention can even make queer youths experiences worse.  Based on these findings, I think it is imperative that people do their research on what can actually help youth before setting out on a mission to supposedly help them (while subsequently gaining massive amounts of praise and self-promotion).

I do, admittedly, take great issue with the way this project has been implemented and the lack of true thought and consideration that went into bringing it to fruition; however, it took me a while to come to this conclusion.  Upon learning about IGBP and watching the first videos, I was glad for its existence.  As a survivor of suicide, my initial reaction was that this was a beautiful way to reach out to youths who were aching.  If I had had access to something like this, I wonder how I would have felt.  At the time in my life where I was blinded by my anguish, I pined for connection; I yearned to feel something outside of myself. 

I honestly think that if I was able to hear people talk about where they had come from, and how they climbed out of that abyss, I wouldn’t care about the simplicity of the program’s implementation.  When I was experiencing the most devastating grief of my life, I know that I wouldn’t be thinking about how this program wasn’t informed by feminist and queer theory, and that it didn’t reflect my radical ideologies.  I think being able to recognize these deficits in the project is a privilege that someone who is suicidal often does not have, and that is a privilege that even the most radical of bloggers has failed to consider.

In summary, I have explored the “It Gets Better Project” through a clinical prevention lens, and have utilized my findings to formulate my personal stance on the issue of the project and LGBTQ youth suicide.  I have found that, overall, the theoretical framework of IGBP is not supported by empirical prevention efficacy findings.  Finally, I have come to the conclusion that my opinion of “It Gets Better” is very much in the gray area, and that I am extremely conflicted about my position.  As a self-professed radical, in terms of my politics, I see, understand, and agree with all of the ways that IGBP is incredibly problematic; however, my identity as a suicide survivor causes me to empathize with the cause, and to see that in some youths’ situations, it just might provide the support they need. In the end, I am content in knowing that this is a complex issue, and my complex feelings are valid.

*References available upon request.

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