Preventing Suicide Among LGBTQ Teens: Warning Signs, Risk Factors and How to Help (2/2)
Written by: Tonya J. Williams, B.A., J.D.
Author’s Note: Suicide is a tragedy for anyone – adult or child. While this article shines a spotlight on the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ youth, the content, for the most part, can be applied to any youth or adult. It is my hope that this article is merely a starting point for education regarding suicide prevention, and that if you have concerns about a child dying by suicide, you will consider the resources set forth below as well as others that can be found via google or another internet search engine. Finally, I believe finding ourselves in the stories of others may offer a life line that can save lives. Accordingly, I have included a few books, along with the other resources at the bottom of this post, that I believe would be particularly helpful to the parent of a teen who may be struggling with their sexuality and needs a safe place to land.
The absence of support for LGBTQ children and teens can come in many different forms. For example, research indicates that 28.9 percent of LGBTQ students report being physically harassed (pushed or shoved) because of their sexual orientation (GLSEN 2017 National School Climate Survey). Also, researchers report in that same study, that 70.9 percent of LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment (name calling or threats) based upon their sexual orientation.
Moreover, 48.7 percent of them experienced electronic harassment (text or post on social media) because of their sexual orientation (GLSEN 2017 National School Climate Survey). Still more, 34.8 percent of LGBTQ students missed at least one day of school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (Id). And finally, a shocking 59.5 percent of them felt unsafe while at school because of their sexual orientation. Needless to say, this kind of experience can easily result in a child feeling hopeless, lonely, and as if they don’t have anyone to turn to about who they are and what they are feeling or experiencing.
Given the data regarding the unique vulnerabilities that gay teens face, it is important to understand some of the warning signs that indicate a child may be considering suicide. Below is a list provided with the hope that those who love children who are gay, including family members, their peers, school teachers, coaches, youth pastors and others in their church home, might pay close enough attention to what is happening in young people’s lives, so that they might avert another senseless tragedy. With that in mind, the warning signs that a child may be considering suicide include, among other things:
- Giving away their most important possessions
- Saying goodbye to loved ones
- Loss of interest in favorite activities or hobbies
- Use or increased use of drugs and alcohol
- Eating or sleeping more than they usually do
- Mood Swings
- Isolating themselves
- Having a specific plan
In addition to warning signs, there are some risk factors that may be helpful to understand when helping a child at risk for suicide (thetrevorproject.org). Having this kind of advanced knowledge about a gay teen increases the odds that they never reach the point where they are thinking about taking their own life. To that end, some of the most salient risk factors are:
- Difficulty in school, failing grades, or bullying
- Risky behavior, like using drugs or alcohol
- Uncertainty about one’s sexual orientation
- Lack of support from other youth
- Family history or signs of depression or other mental illness
- History of being abused or neglected
- Homeless or living in a foster home
- History of self-injury
- End of a relationship or loss of someone important to them
- Easy access to deadly weapons – guns, knives, medication
For a child at risk, being vigilant is particularly important. The more in tune and observant parents, siblings, teachers and friends are, the more likely it is that a suicide can be prevented. Accordingly, not only is it important to be aware of risk factors and pay attention to warning signs, it is crucial that stake-holders (family, friends, guidance counsellors, etc.) know the ways that a suicide can potentially be prevented once it is clear that a child has already reached the point where they are in crisis.
Specifically, the individuals associated with the thetrevorproject.org have developed a wonderful acronym that gives insight into actions that can be taken so that a teen’s life might be saved. Below is the blueprint that could help save a life:
Let’s consider each one of these separately. Spelled out, we get the word CARE. One of the most important things you can do with a teen who may be at risk of killing themselves is to CONNECT with them. Connecting requires those who care about the child to put them in touch with resources like a psychiatrist, therapist or other mental health provider. Also, it is crucial to connect them with a supportive and trusted adult. If you are a child yourself and learn that a friend, sibling, or teammate is in danger of harming themselves, please take them seriously and be sure to connect them with an adult that will take them seriously also.
In addition to connecting the child with resources and a responsible adult, it is important to ACCEPT. In this context, accept means to listen to the feelings of the child and take them seriously. It is also critical to be non-judgmental, and to validate their feelings, but to also encourage them not to hurt themselves. Direct them towards help immediately! Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if they say they want to hurt themselves, believe them, and tell a trusted adult immediately. Do not leave them alone until an adult is aware of what is happening and takes over the situation.
Another important component of suicide prevention is to RESPOND. Once a child has opened up to either an adult or peer about their feelings, it is imperative that the child is connected with someone they trust. If you are a child yourself, and you learn another child is contemplating suicide, don’t ever ignore the child or behave as if everything is normal. Again, tell an adult immediately. Of course, adults should put the child in contact with a physician right away, as previously indicated. So much is at stake that it bears repeating that taking action immediately and not disconnecting from the child until she is safe is surely the most important way to protect them.
The last part of the CARE model is to EMPOWER the child or yourself. Here, you can tell the child to call the Trevor Line, the National Suicide Prevention Line, a doctor or a teacher/coach/youth pastor/parent/guidance counsellor or other responsible adult like an aunt, uncle, grandparent or a parent of a friend. The best practice is to help them to make the call, and to not disconnect from them until they are actually somewhere safe with someone they trust.
Suicide is a tragedy for all of us. It hurts families, friends, teachers, and every member of our community in one way or another. It is crucial for teens in particular to understand that if a friend tells you that they are considering harming themselves, it is NEVER ANYTHING THAT SHOULD BE KEPT SECRET. A life could be at stake. However, it is equally as important for children and adults to understand that, unfortunately, in some situations, children actually kill themselves. It is a tragedy when this occurs. If you are a child who tried to help or an adult who did, you should not blame yourself; your energy is better spent learning from any given situation, and helping to educate others, so that another child doesn’t ever feel alone.
- TrevorLifeline – 1-866-488-7386 – 24/7
- LGBT National Youth Talkline – 1-800-246-7743
- LGBT National Hotline – 1-888-843-4564
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
- The LGBT National Help Center – www.glbnationalhelpcenter.org
- The Mayo Clinic
- Miller, Terry, Savage, Dan, (2011), It Gets Better: Coming out, overcoming Bullying and Creating a Life Worth Living, Boston, Dutton.
- Mardell, Ashley, (2016), The ABC’s of LGBT+, (2016), Coral Gables, Mango Media.
- Dawson, Juno, (2014), This Book is Gay, (2014), London, Hot Key Books.
- Prager, Sarah, (2017), Queer There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World, New York, Harper Collins.