“You are not alone.” “Things will get better.” Those are some of the messages experts are sending to despondent teens in the wake of last week’s suicide by Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi , as well as other recent suicides by younger teens who took their lives after enduring taunts about their sexuality.
“This case is a little atypical because the thing that happened, the trigger of having your personal life exposed this way, is so much more dramatic than what we typically see,” said Courtney Knowles, Executive Director of the Jed Foundation, a national organization that works to reduce the suicide rate and incidences of emotional distress among college and university students.
Knowles was referring to the fact that Clementi’s suicide came after his roommate allegedly posted a video online of Clementi engaging in sexual activity with another man.
“Usually, we find people being suicidal after they’re feeling really stressed, or a big breakup or a big loss,” he said. “But two of the biggest things that precursors to suicide are feelings of being isolated, disconnected and hopeless. ’I don’t have anyone to talk to, and it’s not going to get any better.’ ”
Knowles — whose organization has teamed with MTVu for the ongoing Half of Us campaign, aimed at raising awareness on campuses about mental health issues — said the key for anyone feeling isolated or hopeless is to reach out and tell someone about it.
“The pure act of saying, ’I’m in this really bad place, and I’ve thought about not being here anymore,’ … it can be hugely powerful to let it out,” he said.
Whether it’s someone at a counseling center, a doctor, friend or family member, Knowles said you’ll probably be surprised that people don’t react the way you think they will. You might also learn that you’re not the only one who has gone through this and has thought about death or dying. The Half of Us site contains moving video testimonials from people who’ve struggled with dark thoughts and depression, including former Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, Mary J. Blige, Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan and actresses Brittany Snow and Heather Matarazzo.
“Whether it’s negative thoughts or secrets about your sexuality, the one thing is hope,” Knowles said, noting that a big part of the Half of Us campaign is telling the stories of people who have been there and are managing and moving on. “What’s universal to all the cases is connecting, telling someone how you’re feeling even if your feelings are negative … and finding hope.”
Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, is one of the leading forces behind the GoodPlay Project, which has investigated how young people use digital media and what ethics guide their online activities. While he said his research hasn’t given him particular insight into the Clementi case, it has brought to light some other pertinent issues.
“Perhaps the most relevant finding from our research is that adolescents tend to downplay the importance of the time that they spend, and the things that they do ’online,’ ” Gardner wrote in an e-mail to MTV News. “Perhaps one could say that it seems less real to them than things that are done ’face-to-face.’ The analogy would be to video/computer games — where it is so easy to slay people/monsters/enemies, even when you would not, in person, hurt a fly or slap a stranger.”
In other words, we do things online and with digital media that we would never do offline if we gave it some thought.
In the Clementi case, his roommate Dharan Ravi and Ravi’s childhood friend, Molly Wei, allegedly posted a live feed on Skype of Clementi with another man. Ravi boasted about it on Twitter.
“Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi, 18, tweeted on September 19. “I went into Molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Ravi is also alleged to have tried to broadcast a second encounter a few days later.
Whether the source of despondency is cyberbullying or depression, there are plenty of suicide-prevention resources for teens, both gay and straight, out there. Among the leading efforts is The Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention among LGBT youth and those who are questioning their sexuality.
If you need help and aren’t sure where to turn, The Trevor Project provides the 24/7 Trevor Lifeline (1-866-488-7386), as well as an e-mail service called Dear Trevor for less-urgent questions. There are also live chats with trained volunteers who advocate acceptance and attempt to prevent teen suicide by promoting mental health and a positive self-image. The organization was inspired by the 1994 Academy Award-winning short film “Trevor,” a dramedy about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts to take his life after being rejected by his peers because of his sexuality.
The Half of Us site also has other resources, including a help line (1-800-273-TALK) and links to other relevant organizations for non-emergency information about depression, suicide and mental illness, including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Action Network.