Recent bullying cases could result in copycat suicides

Friday, November 12, 2010 | 11:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:48 p.m. CST, Friday, November 12, 2010

PHILADELPHIA — The experts call it "contagion" when a suicide or rash of suicides inspires others to follow in an attempt at martyrdom or solidarity in death.

Most people would call them copycat suicides. Whatever the name, it appears to have been at play in at least one suicide since Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi's highly publicized jump off the George Washington Bridge in September. And experts fear that other recent suicides might fit the mold or that more are ahead.

That creates a conundrum for advocates who want to stop teenage bullying and their related suicides, as well as for the media outlets that cover them: how to spread the word without romanticizing the problem or unwittingly encouraging vulnerable teenagers to choose death.

"They may see this as a somewhat glamorous ending — that the youth got lots of attention, lots of sympathy, lots of national concern that they never got in life," said Anara Guard, a senior adviser at the Boston-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center. "The second possible factor is that vulnerable youth may feel like, 'If they couldn't cut it, neither can I.'"

Someone who is mentally ill may learn about a suicide and consider it a reasonable option, said Madelyn Gould, professor of psychiatry and public health at Columbia University in New York: "A vulnerable person might say, 'That stopped the pain,'" she said.

Experts say that while contagion is a real issue, it is getting more difficult to identify.

Ann Haas, director of prevention programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said that before the Internet, it was relatively easy to track the phenomenon. When several suicides happened within the circulation area of a newspaper, contagion was likely a factor.

But when news knows no geographical boundaries, she said, it is hard to tell whether the suicides are linked. And Clementi's death reached farther than most suicide stories do.

Authorities say the 18-year-old killed himself after learning that his Rutgers roommate and another student peeked via webcam as he had an intimate encounter with a man. His death followed a string of suicides by teens nationwide believed to have been bullied for their perceived sexual orientation and quickly became a widespread public issue.

A pair of issues long known to gay rights advocates and suicide prevention experts soon became more widely known: Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts. And bullied youths are more likely to try suicide than those who are not bullied.

"There was no way that Tyler Clementi's death was not going to be covered," said Gould. "He jumped from the George Washington Bridge, and he mobilized the need for a lot of prevention efforts. It's a good aftermath of a horribly tragic event."

President Barack Obama and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres posted videos online calling for an end to bullying. One day last month became "Wear Purple Day" to protest bullying. New Jersey lawmakers touted anti-bullying legislation that took on more urgency after Clementi's death.

Then, last week, a Pennsylvania teenager stepped in front of a tractor-trailer, leaving behind a note saying that he was tired of being called "faggot" and "sissy" — and that he wanted to draw more attention to the problem of bullying.

By the count of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it was at least the sixth suicide of a young person in the U.S. who was gay or tormented for being gay since Clementi's death. Experts wonder whether the latest cases are at least partly reactions to the Rutgers case — and the only people who know for sure are the victims.

Scholars can't say whether either problem is becoming more severe or just more widely reported because no data show what percentage of gay youths or bullying victims are suicidal. Most of the nation's yearly 34,000 suicides don't get coverage.

Or, perhaps, the suicides are like those that have been happening all along, but these are attracting media attention because of the new focus on the previously neglected problem of bullying-related suicide.

Laura McGinnis, spokeswoman for The Trevor Project, which runs crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs aimed at gay youths, said that since Clementi's death her group's crisis hot line has handled about 75 percent more calls than usual. Requests from schools and community leaders for "survival kits" have spiked even more, she said.

It is important for people who are feeling suicidal to know where to turn for help, whether it's a hot line, a friend or a hospital, she said.

"There are people out there who can help you, who are willing to listen, to help you be the person you feel inside that you are," McGinnis said.

To reduce the chance of contagion, media outlets should be careful not to conclude that suicides are the result of just one factor — and they should show the pain that suicides cause for families, said Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"It's not whether you cover these, but how you cover them," Clark said.

It is not usually a single event that triggers a suicide, Haas said, and most people who kill themselves are depressed or dealing with other mental illness.

"If youth are struggling with depression," she said, "the impact of bullying can be quite different than if they're otherwise emotionally healthy."

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Allison mondello November 23, 2010 | 3:34 a.m.

Personally, it is beyond me why society feels the need to knock someone down for who they are. It is truly disgusting and these two kids should feel ashamed and dealt the proper consequences. My heart broke for Clementi when I first heard about his suicide. No one should be put down or ridiculed for doing what is right for them. I can't help but wonder though, on the other side of the coin, where were the RA's or the school in general? Had they been there to keep closer tabs on these two kids, the whole situation could have possibly been avoided in theory.

I guess what it comes down to is whether or not a victim of bullying chooses to seek help. It's a shame that recently a mess of bullying-related suicides have taken place. I can only hope that schools and even student groups begin to form a support group or even that one or two people take the time to step up and defend someone getting picked on. I feel that if students begin to stand up for one another and show that putting students down, bullying based on nationality, sexuality, etc. will not be tolerated, we will eventually begin to see a decline in situations such as this. It's all about strength in numbers. Hopefully someone understands that before any more lives are claimed because of the cruelty of our peers.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley November 23, 2010 | 9:20 a.m.


I agree with what you are saying; I think...

Here is my stance on this issue:

Why is it that when I was coming up I never heard of anyone committing suicide because they were being "bullied"? We live in a society that coddles people. You don't outlaw chocolate because someone is allergic to it. You don't outlaw milk because a certain group of people are lactose intolerant. And "bullies" are just a part of everyday life; you teach your children how to deal with them.

Naturally, bullying is not okay, and we should not accept it. But the direction we are moving in is getting ridiculous. As sad as it is that Tyler Clementi committed suicide; there is one thing we must all acknowledge and that is that this was a personal choice or decision that he made.

Now we want to "outlaw" cyber bullying, and bring the Police in on cases where children are bullied in school. But don't the Police have larger issues to deal with? Shouldn't the parents be dealing with these issues for their children at school? Teach your children how to stand up to it, go to school yourself and make the school do something about it; but don't make it more than what it really is.

"Bullies" are a part of everyday life, we encountered them in school as kids and we encounter them in everyday life as adults. I think the most prudent course of action is to teach our children how to deal with them, and fight for our children when they do have to confront them and the school or anyone in authority has made them feel like they were wrong for defending theirself.

As "unfeeling" as it may seem, Tyler Clementi is a case of a child whose parents did not give him the tools and the skills he needed to confront the people that victimized him. If he would have been taught how to deal with these people, the people that victimized him would have been in jail and would have suffered much greater distress than Tyler did.

There is nothing wrong with teaching your children that there is a time and a place for everything; even fighting to defend yourself! And that is where the solution to this problem should start.

We are being taught to be "soft" by our government. Part of life, and even more so in these days and times is being tough enough to handle the things that life throws at us. And our government is taking that ever so important lesson away from us. The government, the Police, and authority in general is not the be all and end all solution to the hard realities of life. There are just some things that we need to know how to deal with on our own.


(Report Comment)
Gwendy Williams November 23, 2010 | 12:48 p.m.

I had a bully when I was in school. I saved up $25.00 and paid a really big, mean looking, high school guy to pull him aside and explain what he would do to him if he ever bothered me again. It worked great. :)

(Report Comment)
Gregory Brown November 23, 2010 | 4:07 p.m.

I think that the quality or intensity of bullying has changed, making our recollections from 10-20-30 years ago largely irrelevant. Bullies of my acquaintance used rough language, racial and sexual slurs, and sometimes hit people. I don't think that they ever intended to maim or kill their victims. Fear and humiliation satisfied their needs. A primitive form of broadcast harassment appeared when I was in junior HS and people--mostly girls--circulated steno pads referred to as "slam books" or "slander books" in which pages were headed by a name and successive insults and putdowns were written there. I never looked at one myself because I figured there was bound to be something unpleasant and stupid about me.

Now, poisonous comments can be posted anonymously and sent to many people via Facebook and other sites. There is little opportunity to confront the people doing that without spending effort and having help.

What was once a bit of dustup on the street or in a parking lot is now likelier to involve weapons. While many bullies realize that racial and ethnic sniping can have serious and painful consequences, they are encouraged to disparage people whose sexuality is "different", or perceived to be, and the attacks are implicitly or openly encouraged by churches, politicians, teachers and school administrators, and parents.

So quit trying to make victims bear a burden for their own bad treatment. Responsible adults should be looking out for them, offering genuine comfort and help, and making sure that perpetrators of abuse are caught out and punished.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley November 24, 2010 | 11:08 a.m.

Some people CHOOSE to be "victims"!


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