Over the past month, there have been two major news stories that have captured our attention. The first, of course, is the extraordinary rescue of the 33 Chilean miners who survived 69 days underground after the mine that they were working in collapsed. The other is the story of the unfortunate Rutgers student who took his own life after his roommate and the roommate's friend exposed his homosexuality online. On the surface, we may not readily see a connection between the two, but when viewed from a psychological perspective, it is interesting to consider how the element of hope figures in both.
On the one hand, we have a group of men, who maintain hope in the face of the most dire of circumstances, being buried 700 metres underground under 700 tons of rubble. Perhaps because they have had years of experience working as a team, they understand better than most how their mutual interdependence is key to their survival. For the 17 days before they were discovered to be alive, these men seemed to have put aside their personal needs and differences in favour of those of the group. They created structure in their daily lives, shared what meager food they had and cared for each other. And when they learned that they were found, their spirits were raised even further, their resolve strengthened and their hope increased, knowing that there were others out there to help, support and rescue them. Throughout the ordeal, they seem never to have lost faith and hope in their desire and ability to live.
On the other hand, we have three, bright, 18 year-old students at the start of their studies at a prestigious Ivy-League school. What should have been the beginning of an exciting and rewarding four years, turned to tragedy in less than a month. Two young men shared a dorm room; the third, a female, occupied another room. One evening, one of the young men asked his roommate for some privacy and the roommate and female friend decided to spy on him with a hidden web cam. When they discovered that he was having sex with another man, they streamed the encounter live with the following tweet, "I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."
What prompts this behaviour? What would the thinking be of two otherwise bright minds to consider doing such a humiliating, hurtful and hateful thing to another human being? We could speculate all sorts of reasons. The two might not have perceived their actions as malicious, but just a prank to make fun of a fellow student. Or the roommate may have been upset about having to vacate his room, and wanted to ensure that this wouldn't become a normal practice. Or he may have had suspicions of sharing his room with a gay man and now had proof to share with others, perhaps to mock, to punish or to use as ammunition to distance himself from being associated with that sort of behaviour.
After all, what greater taunt or insult could one hurl at a classmate than calling him 'gay.' A stroll through any schoolyard will convince you of this. And there is enough evidence of the impact of these taunts in the number of attempted and realized suicides, four times that of the heterosexual population. In the past month alone, five other youths between the ages of 13 and 19 have committed suicide after years of anti-gay bullying.
Why did the Rutgers student jump to his death? It is believed that he had spoken to his resident assistant asking for another roommate and that the RA was taking the allegations seriously. It is also believed that he had some support from an online gay community site. But he had been betrayed by people that he thought were his friends, who were taunting him for being different and this was likely not the first time that this had happened to him. Trust had been broken, he was exposed for all to see, and like most people who choose to end their lives, he saw little hope of things improving in the future.
In the wake of these suicides, there have been a number of celebrities that have voiced their sadness over the epidemic of gay bullying. Daniel Radcliffe (aka Harry Potter) said the following: "These young people were bullied and tormented by people that should have been their friends. We have a responsibility to be better to each other, and accept each others' differences regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ability, or religion and stand up for someone when they're bullied."
Ellen Degeneres' comments can be found here. She has also developed a list of resources to help stop bullying on her website: ellen.warnerbros.com American journalist Dan Savage has created a You Tube channel called "It Gets Better" in which people who were bullied as children and teens are invited to tell their stories and demonstrate how their lives improved.
There is also a national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth called The Trevor Project (1.866.488.7386-thetrevorproject.org). In Toronto, there is the LGBT Youth Line at 416.962.2232 (www.youthline.ca) and the Central Toronto Youth Services at 416.924.2100, ext 245
(www.ctys.org). And there are many high schools in Canada and the U.S. that have started gay/straight alliances which combat bullying and promote safe schools for all youth.
And please let me know if I can be of any help.
Barbara Fish, M.Ed.
Personal and Career Counsellor
“Helping Your Life Work”
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