Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Weighing in on the "It Gets Better" Project

Full disclaimer: I was iffy on the It Gets Better Project from the start. The heart is in the right place, naturally, but is it the right message? As a mental health advocate, speaking strictly on the mental health aspect of this very complex issue of teenage bullying and suicide, the answer is unequivocally "no", and the answer only gets murkier when taking every other factor into consideration. I doubt there are too many teens out there who don't know, or at least believe, that it does get better eventually. And for kids who are victims of bullying, depression, or other factors that might ultimately lead to suicide, it doesn't help a great deal. It helps some, true, but there's a danger in a project like this becoming so popular (and therefore somehow successful) that there will exist a temptation to wipe one's hands clean and declare "Mission Accomplished", and that can be dangerous because a program like this can only ever be the first step towards something grander, something that can really begin to tackle the deeper issues facing all youth in particular and LGBTQ youth in specific.

Second disclaimer: I am a child of privilege. I am white, male, straight and I grew up with a relatively well off and supportive family. And while I was a victim of bullying through middle school, and this bullying certainly contributed to my depression and subsequent suicide attempts, I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to grow up as a LGBTQ youth. How could I? No one coming from a place of privilege while still striving to support social justice could ever seriously make such a claim. Likewise, most people can't even begin to imagine to the factors that cause suicidal ideations, and this is what I think a lot of the "It Gets Better" Project is missing. The desire to completely end your own existence is such an alien thought that there's absolutely no way to wrap your head around it unless you've felt it. Hell, I've suffered through at least four distinct suicidal episodes, at least one of which led to a serious attempt, and I hardly understand it. All I can say is I know what it's like. But of course, even that's hardly half of this issue. Make no mistake; in order to fully and effectively tackle this issue, it must tackled from every possible angle. This crisis is both a "mental health issue"* and an "LGBTQA issue"* and we must all work together to combat this.

*I use quotation marks because I believe the compartmentalization of social justice issues is one of the biggest obstacles to social justice progress, but that's a much larger conversation for a different time

Look, saying "It Gets Better" is one small step above saying "Keep a Stiff Upper Lip!" or "Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones, But Words Can Never Hurt You", the latter being a flagrant lie and the others not being much more encouraging. And to someone struggling with thoughts of suicide, the difference is negligible. The thinking that saying "It Gets Better" provides comfort or support to those in danger of suicidal ideations or attempts is the same kind of faulty thinking that equates suicide with losing all hope or giving up. These are simply not true at all. The promised "better" future could be a million years away; it could be tomorrow. One might even know it for a fact. These don't matter one whit. The closest thing a suicidal thought comes to rationality focuses on ending the pain of the present, and that's something the "It Gets Better" project doesn't just ignore; by its very nature the project casually dismisses it.

It is this and other things that this post here on the blog (femmephane) critiques about Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, and for the most part I agree with the overall assessment, though on some points I feel the critique somewhat misses the mark. While the third point mostly mirrors my biggest issue with the project, it mistakes ageism with ableism (or at least leaves ableism off the list, when the key issue is a basic misunderstanding of the factors that contribute to suicide). It also carries along the horribly ableist tradition of assuming that it takes some kind of strength to survive suicidal ideations, the more insidious flipside of that idea being that only the weak struggle with or commit suicide. "Be strong" is one of the most negative things you can tell someone who is struggling through any kind of crisis; because what's heard is "Stop being weak", and that is never helpful. Strength isn't what's needed, support is. And whatever else the "It Gets Better" project is and however misguided its directions are, it is at least a step in the right direction in providing support to LGBTQ youth struggling with these issues.

The critique is correct, however, in that the project falls short in actually providing said support. All that it does is provide hope, and as is pointed (also in this article, by Jason Tseng) out this in many cases can be simply false hope. The underlying message is simply selling the issues facing LGBTQ youth and young adults short. It doesn't just get better, Tseng asserts; in many cases one has to fight for better. The (femmephane) article poses the thought: "How about instead of hope: change." The question I would pose in response would be: "Why can't it be both?" I can certainly see the appeal in change over hope (which can many times be fleeting), but I don't believe these can be mutually exclusive. You cannot have change without hope, and you cannot have hope without change. This is why I believe that the "It Gets Better" project is a good first step: it lays a foundation that hope does exist. It has rallied thousands, but with this support it needs to do much more. It needs to take action. We need to confront school policies and officials that turn a blind eye to bullying and anti-gay remarks. We need to increase access to mental health support to all students, especially those at greater risk for depression and suicide (such as LGBTQ youth). The absolute worst thing that could come out of this is if we all collectively say "Well, we sure did tell those kids it gets better. Mission accomplished."

On a following note, I must admit I acted quite viscerally to the many statements in (femmephane)'s critique made against the power of storytelling. Those of you who know me know that I am fully committed not just in sharing my stories but encouraging others to make their voices heard as well. It is this reason that I resonated strongly with the "It Gets Better" project at first despite my initial trepidations. To read that "Broadcasting your story into the world, or congratulating others for broadcasting theirs is an anesthetized, misguided approach to connecting" understandably upset my sensibilities and triggered me. It was this statement that originally inspired me to write this article, and thankfully from there it has gone in a different (and I believe far better) direction. And while exploring this idea and re-evaluating has made me realize that there is definite privilege in being able to share one's story and have one's voice be heard, I still cannot disagree more with this statement. There is nothing, I believe, more empowering than to share one's story, even if only to one person (or to nobody at all). And I've already stated my reasons for why I believe that storytelling is not only an incredibly effective form of communication, but that it also sparks effective and honest communication in a way few other forms can. I'll admit that I sometimes am a little too eager to share and not eager enough to listen, but storytelling, in and of itself, is an incredibly powerful device for creating strong, positive connections between people.

I was even about to post as much in response to (femmephane)'s critique when I stumbled across the author's followup. I'm glad that I didn't, because I realized I didn't really understand where the author was coming from when they made those statements which I disagreed with so very much, and it's that lack of understanding that is the reason why so many of these "Stop youth suicide" movements fall short. Now I can at least understand the author's sentiment, that there are many voices and stories within the LGBTQ community that are routinely silenced, while still disagreeing to the point that storytelling is a flawed form of connection. Meanwhile, suicide and suicidal ideations are horribly misunderstood by many; at worst this can lead to victim-blaming [as (femmephane) accusses "It Gets Better" of]; at best this only shines a spotlight on a few external factors, but even this fails to look at every root cause. We could crack down on bullying, especially anti-gay bullying, but that completely ignores what causes anti-gay bullying. Alternative sexualities are routinely demonized both nationally, in the media, as well as locally, by both peers and adults, and there can be little doubt that this is the leading causes behind all three of these likely reasons why LGBTQ youth are at so much greater risk for suicide then straight youth their age:
  1. Much bullying (whether directed a LQBTQ youth or straight youth) is steeped in anti-gay rhetoric,
  2. Straight victims of bullying attempting to "defend their sexuality" by engaging in anti-gay bullying of their own, thus reducing the likelihood of teen peer allies or support networks;
  3. Supposedly responsible adults turning a blind eye to anti-gay bullying, thus reducing the likelihood of adult allies or support networks.
While we can certainly try to crackdown on anti-gay bullying, we will never be successful unless we can manage to change the culture that makes this kind of behavior acceptable to both youth and adults, and that's going to require a hell of a lot more work.

And say we actually succeed in accomplishing all of the above. Well, now all youth have the equal likelihood of suffering from suicidal ideations. And as suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death amongst teenagers aged 13-18, that's still not nearly good enough. And while putting an end to bullying of all kinds will likely reduce that number, and providing greater access to more and better services and support groups will probably help even more, there's a cultural aspect to this as well. You probably haven't noticed nearly as much, but the depressed and suicidal are likewise quite demonized by both national media and individuals, though clearly not quite to the same extent or with quite the same vitriol as those of the LGBTQ community. It's not even really that subtle; it's just so deeply reinforced by our culture that it's not at all polarizing. You might not even bat an eyelash when somebody claims that "only the immature and weak commit suicide," but trust me when I say this is extremely hurtful and dangerous rhetoric. You might even think a line such as this might serve as a harsh, if necessary, wakeup call to somebody who might be contemplating suicide, but you'd be dead wrong. Like saying "Be strong", this kind of rhetoric only reaffirms the suicidal thoughts of those suffering from them. And this is rhetoric that is far more prevalent in our popular culture that many would like to admit, lest one think the absolutely terrifying opinions expressed in the post I quoted and linked to were the rare musings of a single uneducated individual.

Education is a good start, but like heterosexism the problem is both cultural and systemic. I've said that the depressed and suicidal are demonized, and as the above linked post demonstrates, much of this hate is directed towards depressed and suicidal youth. It's a culture where "angst" and "emo" are relentlessly mocked, and where self-harm and self-mutilation have become so trivialized that they are typically only invoked in our pop culture for physical comedy. When a youth suicide does occur, our culture is usually so loathe to turn the mirror in on itself that it quickly lashes out at the victim; the youth was "weak" or "immature" or "selfish," or if they just had the "strength" to hang on a few more years things would've surely gotten "better". (Note: Over 60% of suicide victims suffer from major depression, which, while surely treatable, never truly gets "better".) This is turn leads to a culture that demonizes suicide, which in turn leads to a demonization of suicidal ideations, which in turn leads to demonization of depression. And being constantly told that you are weak and selfish and immature when already have such a low opinion of yourself and your head is constantly full of uncontrollable and alien thoughts of self-harm and suicide, then your chances of surviving through your depression definitely decrease.

People, and especially those who have been called to action by the recent string of teenage suicides, have a responsibility to educate themselves and others more on issues such as depression and suicide. Had the minds behind the "It Gets Better" project done this, it clearly would have taken a different form. It's a great sentiment, sure, and it's a good first step, and that is to their credit. But now it needs to go deeper. It needs to do so much more then just tell kids to "stick through it." It needs to focus on the issues that face not just LGBTQ youth, but all youth who struggle with thoughts of suicide. And it needs to take action.

You've told them to have hope. You might have even given them some hope. Now we need to work together, so they won't have to just survive off that hope anymore.

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