Pause and Ponder

January 05, 2011

News Type:  Director's Corner

Over the past few months, the U.S. press paid much attention to several dramatic incidents in which gay youth who were victims of bullying took their own lives.  These stories were heartbreaking to all who learned of them and, in my view, these deaths may have been preventable.

As Director of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and Board Member for the International Association for Suicide Prevention, I have the privilege of engaging in dialogue with some amazing men and women who work in the field of suicide prevention both nationally and internationally. 

Through this work I often travel, attend meetings and conferences, and engage in conversations that inform my thinking around a given topic. I am often moved when I hear stories of the amazing work people are doing in their communities or hear words that touch the soul.  

One such experience occurred in September 2007, when I attended the XXIV Biennial Conference of the International Association for Suicide Prevention in Killarney, Ireland. Ireland’s President Mary McAleese delivered the keynote address to the Congress delegates. President McAleese spoke four words – “discovery, not a decision” –that I remember as if I heard them just yesterday. 

For me, this phrase gave clarity and meaning to advancing awareness and understanding that have been missing from our current conversation about sexual identity. Her words were courageous, poignant and full of enlightenment and came back to me recently after the incidents of bullying of gay youth that were reported in the press, and I wanted to share them with you.

To provide context, President McAleese was addressing the burden of suicide in Ireland and spoke about the plight of young men who comprised 40 percent of the suicide deaths in Ireland. Among her many salient points was the impact of bullying and how important education and support structures at work, home or school are to protecting those who are the victims of bullying. As President McAleese spoke about sexual identity issues, she acknowledged progress in Ireland, but also spoke about developing a culture of “genuine equality, recognition and acceptance of gay men and women.”  For as she said, “for them, homosexuality is a discovery, not a decision” and this discovery is often made against a backdrop of intolerance and anti-gay attitudes which does little to support this discovery “openly and healthily.”

In light of the recent publicized deaths of several young gay youth in our nation, I call upon each of us to remember that the solutions to youth suicide are not always just a diagnosis and intervention or exposure to a program. While these approaches must be part of our national resolve to address youth suicide, they must also be coupled with a renewed sense of acceptance and understanding for all in our nation, including our young people who are discovering who they are.

None of us, in my view, has the right to interfere with the magnificent experience of one’s personal discovery, and the fulfillment of dreams and aspirations they wish to pursue. I truly believe our society would be stronger if we would let acceptance, support and genuine equality for all guide our thinking and behavior. This is something we can all do and we can begin immediately.

Hurtful and derogatory treatment of others has no place in a civilized and just society.  Sadly, it still occurs but it doesn’t have to. We know it occurs with gay youth as recent press reports indicate and I believe it is time for understanding, support and genuine equality for all in our society to be embraced as a vital component of our national suicide prevention effort.  

If you are interested in learning more about SPRC’s work on the topic of LGBT Youth Suicide Prevention, I encourage you to review our publication which summarizes the research and recommends prevention strategies, available online.  A webinar on the topic, featuring guest presenters from the American Association of Suicidology, The Trevor Project, and the Family Acceptance Project, will be broadcast live, and free-of-charge, on Tuesday, January 18, 3:00-4:30 Eastern Time. (E-mail Tiffany Kim at to register.)  A workshop kit, designed to help staff in schools, youth-serving organizations, and suicide prevention programs deliver workshops on LGBT youth suicide prevention, will be available on our website by mid-January.