The United States is a country where suicide is viewed through a lens of hypocrisy. On the one hand, suicide is officially condemned as a moral and religious issue. On the other hand, our growing youth suicide rate is unofficially condoned -- largely because of our society's widespread refusal to fix the social problems that drive people to suicide. Schools and government have waffled on the psychopathic bullying that now rules the hallways in education.
CDC statistics on suicide date back to 2007, but I'm sure that recent figures will show a hair-raising spike. Two years ago, the U.S. was only 41st on the world suicide list, with a rate of 17.7 suicides per 100,000 -- compared to Belarus, which led the world with 63.3 deaths per 100,000.
But today, as our country boils over with stress and political strife of all kinds, I'll bet the new numbers will show that we're zooming up the list. Suicides by very young children, once almost unheard of, are now happening with ominous regularity.
What Drives People to Want to Die?
The recession is a huge factor in recent suicides. More Americans are killing themselves because they've lost their homes, jobs, careers, healthcare, unemployment benefits. Male pride means that men are more at risk of job-related suicide than women. So we're seeing a mini-epidemic of cases where an unemployed man murders his wife and children, then kills himself. Growing numbers of old people commit suicide because they lose their homes and healthcare.
I suspect that many conservatives secretly view suicide as a convenient way of ridding the country of excess baggage. After all, it is mostly conservatives who are trying to "fix the recession and balance the budget" by slashing relief programs and safety networks. Suicide rates are high in the groups affected by these cuts -- like the chronic unemployed, disabled, homeless, seniors, immigrants, etc. And the suicide rates will shoot even higher if conservatives get rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as they say they plan to do. Do these politicians give a damn that their budget-busting will destroy lives? Clearly they don't. They and their own families are economically secure.
Politics pumps our suicide syndrome as well. Suicides in the U.S. military jumped by 26 percent between 2005 and 2007, and the rate may be even higher in 2010. That stat surely reflects all the horror and controversy around the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Our nation is failing to help combat veterans who come home with a burden of memories and experiences that they can't carry alone. Bullying is now a problem in the military too. Fundamentalist ideology has infiltrated our armed forces so deeply that atheist and non-Christian soldiers are routinely bullied into attending church services by order of their bigoted commanders.
But America's youth suicide rate has sparked the most anxiety. It's the leading cause of adolescent death.
Even before the recession, in 2007, the CDC logged an 8-percent jump in the suicide rate among American youth aged 10 to 24. This jump reflects the social stresses that affect youth: broken families, sexual abuse, etc.. But it also reflects the growth of fierce bullying in our schools since the 1990s. I saw this trend with my own eyes when I served as a commissioner of education (1996-99) in LAUSD, the nation's second largest school district. And as far as I can see, most schools have done little to stop it.
Historically, suicide rates have been higher among young people of color -- with racial bias being a leading factor. For well over a century now, American Indian kids have committed suicide after being subjected to crushing pressures aimed at "de-Indianizing" them. My tribal relatives have shared their stories of harsh life in government boarding schools, where young kids routinely hung themselves in the showers. Today, Native Americans continue with a high suicide rate -- 33.9 per 100,000, which is 2.5 times the national rate for all youth. The racial biases they face remain largely unchanged.
In fact, across the Tea-Partied America where we all live now, racial biases of every kind -- anti-black, anti-Mexican, anti-you-name-it -- are getting more blatant and hostile. This means that all kinds of racial bullying in schools is on the rise.
Misdirected Government Policy
Our federal government likes to position itself as concerned about suicide. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, "Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem. In 2007, it was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for 34,598 deaths.1 The overall rate was 11.3 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.1 An estimated 11 attempted suicides occur per every suicide death."
Indeed, our government actually launched an anti-suicide program called TeenScreen, which is now established in 44 states. But TeenScreen is ominous and controversial. The screening is mandatory for K-12 students, and is done without informed consent of either parents or students. The test's accuracy is highly questionable. It delivers a suspiciously high rate of "positive" results for one or more of 100+ "disorders." A positive is used by a school as a license to order high-powered psychotropic drugs for a kid. It's very obvious that TeenScreen is designed to benefit the pharma industry, not kids.
Our government goes wrong on suicide when it focuses most of its existing programs on "therapy and medication" -- and very little energy on fixing the actual social problems that drive people -- especially young people -- to suicide.
Here is some typical NIMH gogglety-gook: "A type of psychotherapy called cognitive therapy reduced the rate of repeated suicide attempts by 50 percent during a year of follow-up. ... cognitive therapy helps suicide attempters consider alternative actions when thoughts of self-harm arise. Specific kinds of psychotherapy may be helpful for specific groups of people. For example, a treatment called dialectical behavior therapy reduced suicide attempts by half, compared with other kinds of therapy, in people with borderline personality disorder (a serious disorder of emotion regulation...The medication clozapine is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for suicide prevention in people with schizophrenia. Other promising medications and psychosocial treatments for suicidal people are being tested."
Translation: Put the victims of bullying in cognitive therapy and marinate their brains with drugs, instead of getting rid of the bullies who assault other students physically and emotionally, and even drive some other students to lethal despair. That's the government for you.
Even as the government pushes TeenScreen into schools across the country, bigoted politicians are working to dismantle any federal, state laws and school-district policies that protect LGBT students from bullying. This will prompt more suicides. Drugs and therapy are not going to make LGBT suicides go away. Nor will they make suicides of non-gay students go away either
How Anti-Bullying Programs Often Fail
Many schools that now have anti-bullying programs focus on teaching tolerance and what they call "peace-making." But this approach is often too wishy-washy to defuse a developing situation -- as in Tyler Clementi's's case.
As more details about the Rutgers case come out, it appears that Tyler may have complained to Rutgers campus authorities about previous invasions of his privacy by the two students who now may be charged in connection with his death. If Tyler did complain, and the "authorities" did ignore his complaint, that makes these campus officials a possible accessory to the crime, in my opinion.
When "authorities" ignore an ominous development right under their noses, and they don't act like an "authority," the bullies know they are going to get away with whatever they plan to do. This is the breaking point. The kid being bullied now knows for sure that no help or protection is forthcoming. So he or she zooms straight for what looks like the only escape route -- death.
We're seeing a national pandemic of bullying and harassment-related suicides because little in the way of forceful action is being done at the national level. It's not enough to teach tolerance or talk about "peace-making." Many school bullies are truly psychopathic kids. They should be yanked out of a school and dealt with as the psychopaths that they are -- along with the clique of senseless friends that support them, if necessary. A single bully that goes unchallenged by "authority" can infect a whole school, giving other students the notion that making a victim squirm, or hurting that victim, is fun and cool.
Most important, "authority" inaction lets the students know that they won't be punished severely for bullying.
And LGBT kids aren't the only ones being bullied. During my years in LAUSD, I saw that there is all kinds of bullying going on -- targeting boys and girls who are any kind of "different" -- because of their clothes, their ethnicity, the way they talk or walk, the shape of their nose, their hair, their friends, their car, even what their parents do. In recent months, we've seen a surge of harassment on kids whose parents are known to be local civil-rights activists.
As a matter of national policy, our President talks about "getting tough on foreign terrorists." But what is Obama's administration doing to stem the tide of home-grown student terrorism that is going on right in our classrooms? What is Congress doing about bullying? What are state legislatures doing about it?
California does have its school Safety and Violence Prevention Act, 2000 (AB 537). But can it really be enforced? The North Carolina legislature is considering the first anti-bullying bill in our history...but will the law have enough teeth to be effective?
One big problem is that bullying is framed as a "hate crime" when it involves protected student groups -- ethnic, gender, orientation, religious, etc. But how do you categorize a bullying that ends in a student's death when no "protected from hate" category is involved? When the kid with the big nose or the funny clothes finally can't take it any long and hangs himself, is this a "hate crime?"
The question is pertinent because local law enforcement is scratching its head over the Rutgers suicide, trying to decide what "crime" to charge the perps with.
So when will America step beyond the concept of a "hate crime"? It's time for us to recognize that maliciously and intentionally harassing someone to the point where they commit suicide is a whole new category of violent crime.
The problem is compounded by religious bigots who oppose safe-schools programs because they WANT those bullies patrolling the halls. They view bullying as a legitimate weapon against "the homosexual agenda" ...and a way to keep gays in the closet.
Technology also enables today's bullies to commit their cowardly crimes at a safe distance. When I was a tomboy kid being bullied in the 1950s, things got settled by a fist fight on the playground or the school bus. The bully had to face me in person -- and I usually won those fights. With time, the bullies learned to leave me alone. But today kids can destroy another kid's life by malicious texting and Web postings, without making any physical or vocal contact with their victim.
A Few Closing Words
In 2008, I wrote about Lawrence King's brutal hit-type murder by a school bully. I wrote that commentary not as a private citizen but as a former commissioner of education. I said then that school bullies are a social cancer that must be cut out of America's body. In the two years since then, I haven't changed my opinion about this.
Nor have I changed my mind about the school officials, student cliques, parents, church groups, police and politicians who don't take bullying seriously, or who protect bullies or egg them on in any way. These aiders-and-abettors are an essential part of that cancer virus -- that out-of-control contagion that is eating deeply at the lives of America's youth.
While I'm not generally in favor of putting lots of people in prison, I think that the real school bullies are psychopaths who have to be dealt with as such. No amount of teaching about "tolerance" and "peacemaking" is going to penetrate their hardened brains. Like any malignant tumor, they have to be carved out of that school district forthwith, and put in some remedial program, or some degree of juvenile detention, where they can't harm anyone in the "general population" of students.
And it's past time for the surgeons to go to work.