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Suicide, Responsibility, and the Teenaged Brain

Rob Tisinai

October 28th, 2010

Anti-gay activists are working hard to duck responsibility for anti-gay bullying and teen suicides. These attempts occasionally veer into sheer lunacy, as when they claim gay teens are in despair because society is too accepting of homosexuality. But there’s one dodge I find particularly offensive. From the comments on NOM’s Facebook page:

The only people responsible for the suicides are the people that comitted them.

Nobody forces anyone to take his own life; ergo, only those who commit suicide are responsible.

Each person is responsible 4 their own actions. U make believe u r gay. God did not make u gay & He does not make u commit sucicide. nor does anyone else

I don’t know if gay is always a choice, or not. But suicide is ALWAYS a choice. The ultimate cop-out.

To be fair, I don’t see this from polished anti-gay leaders. But it’s all over the comments on their web pages and blogs. It’s a strange argument coming from conservatives, who generally believe teenagers require strict discipline and are still learning to make wise decisions. They think a 15-year-old like Billy Lucas can’t handle alcohol, a car, the vote, or serving in the military, but he’ll have no trouble hearing that in the core of his being he’s an abomination, a pervert, an affront to God.

We have good reason not to trust kids to their own judgment when it comes to the big stuff. The human brain isn’t mature until it’s 23 to 25 years old. Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), scientists are now able to track blood flow — and therefore activity — in the brains of adults and teens as they confront information and solve problems. The science is new, but some differences are clear:

Between childhood and adulthood, the brain’s “wiring diagram” becomes richer, more complex and more efficient, especially in the brain’s frontal lobe, or front outer mantle, which is the seat of such higher order functions as learning and socialization. An important part of the frontal lobes is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is often referred to as the “CEO” or executive of the brain and is responsible for such skills as setting priorities, organizing plans and ideas, forming strategies, controlling impulses, and allocating attention. New research suggests that the PFC is one of the last areas of the brain to fully mature…

[O]ne key MRI study found that when identifying emotions expressed on faces, teens more often activated their amygdala—the brain area that experiences fear, threat and danger— whereas adults more often activated their prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain linked more to reason and judgment—and performed better on the task. Behaviorally, the adult’s responses were more intellectual, the teens’ more from the gut. These findings and others suggest that although the plasticity and changeability of the adolescent brain are extremely well suited to meet the demands of teen life, guidance from parents and other adult institutions are essential while decision-making circuitry is being formed.

Impulse control, planning and decisionmaking are largely frontal cortex functions that are still maturing during adolescence…[O]ne reason adolescents may have difficulty inhibiting inappropriate impulses is that the circuitry needed for such control is not fully mature in early adolescence, thereby making such tasks relatively difficult.

In short, kids have less impulse control than adults, and they listen to their gut when processing emotional cues.

Adults: prefrontal cortex

Teens: amygdala

Imagine then that you’re a gay teen, and you’re watching this Jimmy Swaggart broadcast with your parents, who have demonized gays in front of you all your life. Look at Swaggart’s face as he speaks. Take in his “emotional cues.” Hear your parents murmuring “Mm hmm. That’s right.”

Imagine reacting from your gut, not your intellect. Imagine your brain has only limited impulse control.

Imagine all that — as the only life you know.

Maggie Gallagher wants to know if she has blood on her hands. Jimmy Swaggart. Peter Sprigg. Tony Perkins. Bryan Fischer. Linda Harvey. Whether you’re calling us an abomination, or phrasing it more gently (like Maggie) and merely saying we can never feel the love that a man and a woman can. You all have blood on your hands.

Comments

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Hayden
October 28th, 2010 | LINK

Why do you think they draft and recruit 18-20 year old boys for the military? At one time men couldn’t drink, vote or marry at 18, due to their not being mature enough, but could be drafted and sent to combat, no problem.

Lindoro Almaviva
October 28th, 2010 | LINK

Preach it!

Victor
October 29th, 2010 | LINK

Compare:

“The only people responsible for the suicides are the people that comitted them. . . .Each person is responsible 4 their own actions.” – NOM supporter

“It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” -Romans 14:21

The conclusion: don’t eat meat or drink wine, because that can cause others to fall. But breaking their arms, throwing them down a flight of stairs, punching and kicking them and urging them to kill themselves is OK, because that won’t have any effect.

Regan DuCasse
October 29th, 2010 | LINK

Let’s not allow the FB comments of Clint McCance and how he reacted to Spirit Day to fade from view.
More importantly, let’s remember his particularly cruel remarks about how he’d treat his own child if they were gay.

That’s the money shot. And EXACTLY why the gay community and their supporters can point to the significance of why gay children are distinctly in need of more help and support than other children and the issues they are bullied for.

Clint McCance can be representative of thousands of fathers all over. Who’d actively assault and bully their own gay children.
Or illegally abandon them to the streets with impunity. Even if that child is under age.
The torment doesn’t begin and end at school among one’s peers.
But also from the adults one is extremely dependent on for mental and physical well being.

I can imagine Tyler Clementi having a father and mother similar to Clint McCance.
And I can think with assurance that such a thing contributed to Tyler’s suicide.
His parents have not DEFENDED him since his death.
Not a word.
Whereas the more supportive parents HAVE done so.
Something that’s very telling unto itself.

We know of children who are barely toddlers being beaten and murdered by their fathers for not presenting as butch enough for those fathers.
Which is anti gay torture at it’s most hideous extreme.

But such cruel remarks and thoughtlessness and loss of parental love that McCance espouses, could wear on the teen brain and do damage.

This is why I bring up the Clark study, and the damage to black children.
Even as far back as the early 50′s, the effects of bigotry, isolation and constant messaging as an inferior and threatening person presented in children as young as three years old.

There is no reason to think that similar attacks on gay children, wouldn’t have similar outcomes as they did on black children living under Jim Crow.
Or Jewish children in the Soviet Union.

I’m hating the idea of gay people as lab rats all over again, but perhaps gay adolescents might need this.
Because just as the Clark research was instrumental in overturning school segregation.
Perhaps something as groundbreaking regarding education could happen as well for gay kids…and their families.

Martin
October 29th, 2010 | LINK

Once again, I’m reminded how much I want to punch anyone who thinks suicide is some kind of “cop out.” I’ve never understood the logic behind that. Copping out of WHAT? I suppose the victims of bullying owe it to someone (whom?) to just suck it up and continue being a punching bag?

Todd D
October 29th, 2010 | LINK

Growing up gay and Mormon was difficult enough, but at the age of 21, after returning from my mission, I had an uncle in Utah who was beaten and left for dead outside a gay establishment as he was leaving. My 140 lb uncle was left naked with punctured lungs and a crushed eye socket in a gravel pit by two football players. He survived due to hypothermia setting in and I still remember my family discussing the incident and saying, “well he shouldn’t have been there”. I had known I was gay since Jr. High at least, and knew I could not come out to a family who believed gay people deserved this because of who they are. While I did not commit suicide, I almost did while attending BYU and despairing that I would never be accepted or “normal”. That incident left a huge impression and propelled me deeper into the closet for many years…

MJC
October 29th, 2010 | LINK

Thanks for a beautifully reasoned (and solidly scientific) post.

Soren456
October 29th, 2010 | LINK

Even Falwell had the integrity to back off his rhetoric when Matthew Shepard Was beaten and left to die.

For at time, at least, he could make the right connections.

David
November 1st, 2010 | LINK

The thing I do personally to counter-act all the hate is to serve at the gay community center, with Whitman-Walker Clinic, and give generously to SMYAL to help those kids who have been thrown out and thrown away by their parents. Voting hasn’t worked, for me or for them.

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