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Beware The Heroes We Create

Jim Burroway

September 27th, 2011

First, let me stipulate one thing: Lady Gaga’s advocacy on all manner of LGBT-related topics are powerful and heartfelt. While some might see her advocacy as just another means of self-promotion, I just don’t see it that way. And I don’t even see her advocacy as being “loyal to her fan base,” a poor excuse for advocacy if I ever heard one. It’s another way of saying an entertainer simply knows where his or her bread is buttered. I think Lady Gaga would be a strong advocate regardless of what her “fan base” may be. Her career is built upon many things, including image and self-promotion, but her advocacy seems, to me at least, to be genuine and passionate.

And yet, as I watch this video of her performing “Hair” and dedicating it to Jamey Rodemeyer at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, I can’t help but thinking that, in some small way, Jamey achieved in death something he never had in life: a song dedicated to him from the star performer who he described as a huge inspiration to him. If he were alive — and I’m assuming he was like most star-struck teens who worshiped their musical idols — his thrill at her mentioning his name before thousands of adoring fans would have been unmeasurable. But he’s not alive. He killed himself last week after enduring yet more bullying, even after he himself had made his own “It Gets Better” video last spring.

I don’t think there is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person alive who hasn’t experienced bullying, peer rejection and torment. For some of us, that experience has been indescribably brutal. But the fact that we are alive is proof that suicide is not a natural response to bullying. If it were, we’d all have killed ourselves. For some, however, there is at least one other ingredient in the mix somehow which leads then to kill themselves while others press on. Those ingredients vary from individual to individual, but suicide research shows that one common denominator is often depression, which can express itself in many ways. It brings an extra vulnerability for teens to carry, a vulnerability which makes it extraordinarily difficult to predict the specific incident which could trigger the next suicide.

As I watch this video, I can’t help but recall moments of darkness and despair in my own life when I imagined the huge wave of grief that would be unleashed by my own funeral. I dreamed of my tormenters’ lives forever ruined by their guilt for having pushed me over the edge. Everyone else would know who they were, and they would shun them the way I was shunned. Who’s sorry now, huh?

Who among us haven’t imagined something like this for themselves? The wailing and rending of clothing as people finally realized that their cruelty and neglect would haunt them for the rest of their days, the outpouring of love in death that we felt was withheld from us in life, and, in the scene’s dénouement, a song in our honor because even the greatest pop hero (in my version, it was either Bobby Sherman or, later, Cher ) would know our names.

I needn’t point out the obvious that I never did try to make my fantasy a reality. My self-esteem was so low that I feared that I was too incompetent to actually kill myself and I’d end up a life-long vegetable. I guess you could say my depression was so deep it actually saved me. But we do know the phenomenon of copy-cat suicides, where the aftermath of one person’s death may begin to look pretty good to others who are watching. Which is what makes watching this video for me so horrifying. Jamey talked about his love of Lady Gaga in his “It Gets Better” video. But to most of us watching that video, we would naturally come to the conclusion that it didn’t get better. And, for most of us, it will be obvious that with Jamey gone, it will truly never get better for him on this earth because he’s not here on it.

But is it so obvious to other Lady Gaga fans? To other teenage, bullied, depressed, and hopeless Lady Gaga fans? A Lady Gaga fan who would kill for that kind of a shout-out, even if it is a posthumous one? The LGBT Movement Advancement Project, a joint effort of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, GLSEN, GLAAD and others, have a very informative 12-point guide for talking about suicide (PDF: 642KB/4 pages). Points 7 and 8 are particularly relevant here:

7. DON’T normalize suicide by presenting it as the logical consequence of the kinds of bullying, rejection, discrimination and exclusion that LGBT people often experience. Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy LGBT person—or drawing a direct, causal link between suicide and the bullying or discrimination that LGBT people often face—can encourage at-risk individuals to identify with the victim (or the victim’s life circumstances) and increase risk of suicidal behavior.

8. DON’T idealize suicide victims or create an aura of celebrity around them. Research shows that idealizing people who have died by suicide may encourage others to identify with the victim or seek to emulate them.

As I look through the list, I see several important points which show that there have been times when BTB did not do such a good job in talking about teen suicide in the past. I do know that we have broken some of the recommendations in this list. Our mistakes were honest ones, but we can ill-afford to keep making them. This isn’t to say that we cannot talk about suicide or report future cases in which teens take their own lives. Not talking about suicide won’t make it go away, and not talking about bullying won’t make things better for gay teens. But there are things we all can do to better respond to our collective grief and anguish when the spark of yet another young life flames out in self-destruction, particularly when we can easily identify with the pain that led to those final moments.

We don’t know what final spark led Jamey Rodemeyer to kill himself. And chances are we won’t know the actual trigger for the next person who reaches that moment of despair where the only option they believe they have is to follow in Jamey’s footsteps. But we do know that we can chose to honor Jame’s life in a way which can be helpful to other teens who might be at a similar point of hopelessness in their lives. If Jamey’s death is to mean anything, it must be found in the commitment to ensure that people like him can find the help that they need when and where they need it, and to surround them with supportive adults to help them — whether those adults are inside their families or outside; in the schools or off school property. Let Jamey’s death be not an occasion for another poignant music video, but a call to action to make sure every teen knows that there is someone they can turn to. And to make sure that when they need to turn to someone, there really is someone there to help.

For more information on general suicide prevention, research and help-seeking resources, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). If you or someone you know needs help, see The Trevor Project’s web site or call the Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386).

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Bose in St. Peter MN
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Thank you, thank you, thank you Jim, for this.

As the survivor of my partner’s suicide a decade back, I struggle with some of the coverage of suicide and bullying. I’m glad to see awareness growing so much, but troubled that vulnerable teens may believe that they can do something at least marginally positive by dying.

The truth, too often left unspoken, is that suicide seldom happens apart from a severe mental health crisis. The decision to die isn’t the product of a healthy brain doing a cost-benefit analysis. Death is generally preceded by some combination of irrational thinking, severe despair, anxiety, depression and/or other mental illness. It’s those kinds of things that compromise the person’s ability to think and act in their own best interest. Of course, long-term bullying can lead to a crippling sense of despair and hopelessness. But, at that point, compromised mental health isn’t going to be fixed solely by removing bullying from the equation. The mental health issues have to be identified and treated.

The simplest facts I’d love to see promoted more often are:
* Feeling suicidal is treatable: Getting good health care and support is critical.
* Severe suicidal thoughts, like a broken bone, heart attack, or any other health crisis, call for an immediate trip to the nearest Emergency Room.
* If you’re struggling with an endless sense of hopelessness or despair, it’s not your fault. It’s also not normal, not OK. Keep talking about it, keep seeking out people to talk to about it.

In other words, you can make it better. It’s not an easy road. The fixes won’t be quick. But, it’s entirely doable and worthwhile.

Anyway, thanks again Jim… I appreciate your thoughtfulness on this.

paul canning
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

I agree, and I find that guidance ignored all the time in how suicide is reported.

One beef …

“I don’t think there is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person alive who hasn’t experienced bullying, peer rejection and torment.”

That’s your age speaking. I’m not young either, but I know that for many gay kids nowadays (this is in UK) they are accepted and don’t experience any of this. I suspect it’s also the case in much of Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Erin
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Bose, I’m so sorry to hear of what you went through. I agree with this article, Jim. I think Lady Gaga meant well though, and I’m sure even more people would attack her as careless if she didn’t acknowledge this young boy. I only saw the video of the performance once, but perhaps there were lyrics in the song that plead with children not to take their lives. ?? Just wondering.

Kel Munger
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

This is excellent, Jim, and suggests some important actions that we can take IRL with the people around us.

I would, however, like to point out the Lady Gaga is also Stephani Germanotta, a 25-year-old artist. And she is grieving, even if she didn’t know this child. She’s a kid, too, and one that obviously feels a great deal of commitment toward her fans.

I can see how her response to Jamey’s death could create problems, particularly where other hurting kids are concerned. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Lady Gaga is also a hurting kid.

Jay Jonson
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Thank you for the concern and for sharing your own story. But insofar as it is critical of Lady Gaga, who has proved a staunch and fierce advocate for gay young people, I think it is off base. Lady Gaga has often spoken out against the ugliness and meanness of bullying. She is in no way capitalizing on Jamey’s suicide. Like all of us who has seen Jamey’s “It Gets Better, I Promise” video, she was no doubt moved, and felt a special connection because he lights up in the video when he thinks of her and her music.

I am so tired of gay people attacking each other. Please desist. The people who need to be attacked are the bullies who tormented this little boy and the adults who spout bigotry. They are the ones to be held responsible. Lady Gaga has done nothing to merit this criticism.

I note that GLSEN has also attacked her for supporting a law that would hold bullies accountable, saying that what is needed is more GSA’s. It seems to me that they are exploiting Lady Gaga, trying to get some publicity by attacking her. How disappointing.

Matt
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

I agree with this post. Thanks for writing.

I am so tired of gay people attacking each other. Please desist.

Why should gay people march in ideological lockstep because you’re “tired”? Here’s to less groupthink, not more.

mark miner
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Very impressive, Jim.
Anyone interested in the psychology of suicidal young men should study the Greek “pretty flower boy” myths, especially Venus & Adonis. Jung says that young men are still very close to the “mother goddess” and the realm of the unconscious, so feel a stronger pull to return to the womb . . . which means death for a 14 year-old “Little Monster.” And Gaga knows all these things; she’s very mythologically aware in calling herself the “Mother Monster” to all the “Little Monsters.”

I think the best way to address the issue is to make (our) young men sturdier (Exercise! Cold Showers! Heroic Poetry! All that Baden-Powell stuff!) rather than frailer and MORE prone to suicide.
I don’t care to see the blood of young men greasing the wheels of Ex-gay industry, the gay industry, or the Gaga industry.

—mark miner

I offer my own poetry website
http://www.cyparissus.com
to keep these notions current.

enough already
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

paul,
That’s your experience in a civilized country speaking, not reality for American youth.
I live between Europe and the ‘States. Believe me, Jim has it right.
Things are a tiny bit better for us in the big cities in the US. In the smaller places, they are really worse than ever – the Christian backlash is far stronger than Europeans (of which I am one, and, sorry, the UK belongs, too) can even begin to imagine.
Those guidelines are valuable.
Personally, I think Lady gaga is handling this just fine.

Kevin
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

I was the victim of anti-gay bullying back in junior high and the first couple of years of high school (back in the eighties). One of the things that I think helped me get through that time is that I was able to establish safe spaces for myself (home, reading at the library, the comic book store).

I think one issue that goes unaddressed is how the internet can have an impact on young people and suicidal ideation. The term that I have heard over and over again in recent weeks is cyber-bullying. The internet can be a very abrasive place, at best, and bullies can be given free reign to attack people. If you want an example of how abrasive the internet can be just read some of the You Tube comments directed at Jamey.

I think that if I were a teenager (preteen) reading that kind of stuff would have pushed me over the edge as well.

John
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

I just wanted to say that I thought this article was very well written and has a very important message. I am a psychology graduate student and have focused my research on suicide for the past few years and one of the things that bothers me the most is the media’s portrayal of some suicides. Whenever I come across a journalist’s article on suicide, I worry that it will portray the suicide in a romanticized light, as I have seen before, however I found your article was right on point and portrayed suicide the way it needs to be portrayed, as a tragic response to multiple factors. Thank you for your well written article.

TampaZeke
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Thank you for posting this Jim. I’ve wanted to make a comment on many threads expressing this concern but simply haven’t had the time or energy to do such a topic justice. You stated about as well as it could be stated.

I’ve been very concerned about the unintended and horrendous response that this attention from Lady Gaga might produce. I just hope that no other kid at the end of his/her rope sees all this and wants some of this kind of attention for themselves.

Erin
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Jay, I think you misunderstood Jim’s point. He wasn’t accusing Lady Gaga of trying to capitalize on this boy’s death. He was simply warning that her advocacy may have an unintended effect on other kids and that we have to be careful not to idolize suicide victims because it may encourage other kids who are having trouble finding worth in their lives to do something drastic.

Charles
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

I’ve been there with the suicide bit. I suffered major depression (all the symptoms) and nearly took my own life after being in the closet and denial after forty years around three and a half years ago. I was a frigging wreck. I had to stay in a mental hospital for 17 days. Recently I asked one of my nieces about my near suicide and she told me that she would have been angry at me if I had gone through with it.

Let us please not glorify gay teen suicide. I just want gay teens to get the help that I did not receive in my teenage years. My life would have been a lot different than it turned out to be.

Fenrox
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Oh screw that! Context is all that is needed. Nobody is glorifying it, and if they do… SO WHAT. People will always glorify something and yes sometimes it will be horrible things like this. They will get over it and rational, sane people in their lives will help them.

Barb Hildebrand
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

What a wonderfully written article! I came across this on the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) Facebook fanpage today right after watching Lady Gaga’s video tribute to Jamey Rodemeyer.

As I heard Gaga saying this is for Jamey and I hope Jamey is looking down, I too thought about the copycat/contagion aspect for all the many followers/fans of Gaga present at the concert and those watching it later online. I know Gaga is a staunch supporter for LGBT and for standing up for who you are, but I also know that many are young and could fantasize of what it would be like to have this much attention, so many caring about you, having your idol memorialize you by doing a tribute at a huge concert.

I certainly hope that is not the case, loved that AFSP prefaced with the comment “”…suicide is not a natural response to bullying.” Please take a moment to read this article and share your thoughts.” and that you so beautifully addressed the appropriate ways to portray and discuss suicide also giving the message it’s not the answer to bullying.

I shared your fabulous post on my fanpage “Suicide Shatters” as there are many there who can benefit from learning about this. My heart goes out to Jamey and his family and friends. I hope strong legislation is put in place to stop bullying and have strict consequences for the actions taken by the bullies.

Gary Suardini
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

What a great article that looks at both sides of the effects of such a video. Sounded to me like a nice tribute to Jamey, but yes I can see we have to be careful about how vulnerable people might view it. I think Lady Gaga meant and did well and this article is a very good frank discussion about the subject, thanks for taking the time to write, Jim.

Mike
September 27th, 2011 | LINK

Whenever I imagined the aftermath of my own suicide, I always pictured people (including my family) just shrugging their shoulders and moving on. Maybe that’s why I never went through with it.

dave
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

I’m gay and not out at work. Some know, I told them but it’s not known. I’ll sit there with people and someone will say, oh look, there goes Bob the gay guy, talking about some guy that they percieve to be gay, and laugh. How do you think it makes me feel, sitting there with these people who say they are my friend. Being gay is like being able to turn yourself invisible and go into a room with your friends and hear them talking about you and laughing at you like your not there. You find out the truth about people.

Jay Jonson
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

The problem with this exaggerated fear that somehow Lady Gaga mourning the death of a fan will somehow “glamorize” suicide is that it victimizes Jamey all over again.

As to Matt, who claims that my being tired of gay people attacking each other is equivalent to being in favor of group think: learn how to read. I am not advocating group think, but I deplore our tendency to turn on each other and our allies. We have enough enemies who are happy to attack us; why aid them. I am sure that somewhere some rightwing asshole is writing about how gay people agree with them that Lady Gaga’s “glorification” of Jamey’s death is the real cause of gay suicides.

If as we frequently point out in reference to the religious condemnations of homosexuality, words have consequences, then so do our words. Insofar as this post is a criticism of Lady Gaga for mourning a fan, it is totally out of line.

Jim Burroway
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

There are many ways to mourn, even publicly. Making someone a star for killing themselves is not appropriate. Jamey was victimized by his tormenters as well as by his own depression, which likely was exasperated by his tormenters.

If we want to perpetuate the cycle of torment and death, then the best way to do it is to do exactly what we are doing now: by reinforcing the assumption that suicide is a logical consequence of the kinds of bullying and rejection, that virtually all of us have experienced. It’s not. And we can only make it worse when others, who are under such extreme conditions of duress, see a pathway to hero-status in Jamey’s example.

Lady Gaga chose to mourn a fan in an extraordinarily public way. It is not out of line to point out that public actions can have public consequences. And to do that publicly. To say that anyone should stay silent because, oh, I don’t know, a star might feel bad, well that’s about as out of line as it gets.

I’m a huge fan of hers, and I greatly value her advocacy, and I think her heart is in the right place even if, in this particular case, I do criticize her making a hero out of Jamey. But in the final analysis, I don’t care one way or another about Lady Gaga’s feelings. She’s an adult whose able to take care of herself. My concerns are 100% with other kids who are being bullied and victimized and whose mental state leads them to take illogical and self-destructive acts. As Bose in St. Peter MN put it so very well:

The decision to die isn’t the product of a healthy brain doing a cost-benefit analysis. Death is generally preceded by some combination of irrational thinking, severe despair, anxiety, depression and/or other mental illness.

Having been through various aspects of that experience myself when I was younger, that’s the kid I care about today. This isn’t about making you or Lady Gaga feeling vindicated because a kid killed himself. It’s about understanding the mechanics and thought processes which can lead up to a suicide, and in learning about those processes understand ways to try to prevent more suicides from taking place, while also appropriately mourning Jamey’s death.

Priya Lynn
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

Jim said “As Bose in St. Peter MN put it so very well:

“The decision to die isn’t the product of a healthy brain doing a cost-benefit analysis. Death is generally preceded by some combination of irrational thinking, severe despair, anxiety, depression and/or other mental illness.”.

That may be true in some cases, but certainly not all. Sometimes it is the product of a healthy brain doing a cost-benefit analysis – sometimes life is so miserable death is preferable, when one has a long drawn out painful and eventually fatal medical problem for instance.

Timothy Kincaid
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

Jim,

Deeply thoughtful, beautifully written.

I’m not sure that I agree about Lady Gaga’s dedication, but the greater point is very important.

Bose in St. Peter MN
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

Thanks for the follow-up, Jim.

Priya, you’re correct to point out that suicide can be a rational, carefully considered decision, particularly in the context of terminal illness. While I didn’t qualify the first sentence Jim quoted, I used generally to make it clear in the next that I’m not casting the issues in blacks and whites.

After my partner’s suicide (in his mid 40s) I had to come to terms with the rational component of his decision. He was in great physical health, but his mental health had taken him on a frequently awful multi-decade roller coaster. I don’t believe his decision was entirely rational, but on his most clear-headed, healthy days it was rational for him to acknowledge that the roller coaster would continue: Some of his future days would probably be as excruciating as some of the worst of the days past.

But here, we’re talking about youth. Evidence suggests that, as a group, kids who have died by suicide have had high rates of mental health issues, interfering with their ability to think rationally while making life-or-death decisions.

Priya Lynn
September 28th, 2011 | LINK

I agree with you Bose, I don’t think a child committing suicide is thinking rationally, or perhaps is overly focussed on the present.

Jay Jonson
September 29th, 2011 | LINK

Thank you for your response above to my posting re Lady Gaga’s public mourning of Jamey Rodemeyer. I think what she did was admirable and perhaps necessary. But I also see your point as well, especially as you have explained it more fully. I apologize for the snark. I know that your motivations are entirely positive and I admire your work deeply.

Priya Lynn
September 29th, 2011 | LINK

Jim said “There are many ways to mourn, even publicly. Making someone a star for killing themselves is not appropriate.”.

I see your point, but on the other hand I don’t think its appropriate to tell anyone how to mourn. You can’t blame Lady Gaga for doing it her own way anymore than you’d tell a person at his funeral they shouldn’t be there because they’re making a scene.

Jim said “If we want to perpetuate the cycle of torment and death, then the best way to do it is to do exactly what we are doing now: by reinforcing the assumption that suicide is a logical consequence of the kinds of bullying and rejection, that virtually all of us have experienced.”.

I don’t see where Lady Gaga’s act did that. Just because someone mourns publicly it doesn’t mean they think or are saying suicide is a logical consequence of bullying. If someone interprets it that way, that’s their mistake, not Lady Gaga’s.

Emeline
September 29th, 2011 | LINK

Seriously? These two “Don’t”s haven’t worked very well so far, as the rate of gay youth suicides isn’t decreasing, it’s increasing. We can play “shocked” when these deaths occur, we can’t keep calling for “bullying” awareness, we can’t cry crocodile tears (that’s what they become when we merely pay lipservice to the crisis and then shut up about it after the funerals and memorial services) over these deaths without talking about suicide in a frank, open, realistic way – all the time – until people start understanding its consequence – forever gone for the suicide and a lifetime of heartbreak, despair and anguish for the survivors. Whatever we’ve been doing by not doing these “Don’ts” hasn’t worked so we need to do something else, or we won’t change a thing.

Priya Lynn
September 29th, 2011 | LINK

Emeline, do you have a link to an authority that says gay youth suicides are increasing?

Bose in St. Peter MN
September 29th, 2011 | LINK

My thoughts after pondering Priya Lynn’s recent comment (thanks PL… good stuff to think about)…

To me, the big-picture questions Jim is asking aren’t so much trying to chastise Lady Gaga as they are challenging all of us to reflect on our public responses to youth suicide may or may not be helping vulnerable surviving youth. He was just as hard on himself and past coverage at BTB as Gaga.

Let me take a stab at re-framing this a bit.

The loss of a single young person who was struggling with bullying is heartwrenching, a stab to the gut. It’s only humane to mourn, to feel desperate to do something meaningful and immediate. Everyone, from online writers, to non-profit groups, to celebrities, to health care providers, feels the urge to do something which will (a) mourn the loss, and (b) help to prevent the next suicide.

The first — mourning — is always an intimate, personal act. Every person is justified in feeling their own pain, following their own path.

But, what if credible evidence was available that some forms of public mourning by the writers, celebrities, and others had could actually increase the probability of the next suicide, and other forms of public mourning could help prevent it? Wouldn’t that be worth talking about? Everybody can still make their own decisions about how to mourn publicly, but can do so mindfully of likely impacts.

In the case of a celebrity, the public mourning could omit the name, and reach out: I lost a fan today, and I refuse to accept that this is OK. I want all of you to stay with me. If you are struggling, I am struggling with you. If you are hurting, I am hurting, too. Call the Trevor Project. Talk to somebody. Do whatever you have to, but stay with me. It could be an appeal for donations to the Trevor Project, or for fans to check in with vulnerable loved ones to say, how can I help and you matter to me.

There are countless, very individual ways that all of us could frame our public messages to encourage prevention, and some simple guidelines for avoiding the opposite. I’m not trying to censor anyone, but I trust that people who care as deeply as Gaga want to know the difference between what helps and what hurts.

Ray Harwick
September 29th, 2011 | LINK

Whenever I imagined the aftermath of my own suicide, I always pictured people (including my family) just shrugging their shoulders and moving on. Maybe that’s why I never went through with it.

There it is. Something like that; a moment not unlike hearing a clatter outside, going to see that the dog has tipped over his food dish, then going back to whatever you were doing.

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