Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington bridge after his roommate secretly videotaped him being intimate with another man and posted it on the Internet. The media attention around his death brought to light several other recent, related suicides. Thirteen-year-old Seth Walsh hung himself after enduring daily taunts about his sexuality. The parents of Asher Brown, also 13, say he was relentlessly bullied by peers in Texas for his Buddhist beliefs and his peer’s belief that he was homosexual, though this was not confirmed before his death. Asher Brown even turned to Christianity over this past summer in an attempt to get the bullying to stop. Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself to escape being taunted by classmates everyday because of his perceived sexuality, though he never self-identified as gay. Even as I write, the media continues to report stories of additional teens who in only the past month have taken their own lives.
While the media has put a strong emphasis on the fact that sexuality, perceived or real, played a part in each of these tragic suicides, a far clearer link is that each of these students was the victim of bullying, including cyber-bullying. In this past year, we have seen growing attention paid to suicides driven by cyber-bullying. Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old, took her own life after being tormented by fellow students after a sext to her boyfriend spread around her school and six surrounding schools. Phoebe Prince, 15, committed suicide after enduring daily bullying by a group of girls.
Many celebrities have taken up the cause of teen suicide prevention. A new series of PSAs entitled “It Gets Better” have hit the Internet in a huge way. Celebrities such as Anne Hathaway, Jenny McCarthy, Kristen Cavallari, Julie Benz, Greg Grunberg, and Neil Patrick-Harris have all created their own videos encouraging teens not to end their lives because there is more and better to come. They also encourage them to seek the help they need. Ellen DeGeneres filmed a heart-felt message on her talk show calling for change in our society in order to stop these deaths. DeGeneres also interviewed Jenny McCarthy about the intense bullying she went through in junior high and high school. Tim Gunn even shared the story of his own suicide attempt in order to bring hope to these students. These messages and others have served as a call to action for many to actively work to stop teen suicide, especially those caused from bullying.
So here is my call to you.
God has provided us with a message far more powerful than “It gets better.”
As I listen to the stories of these students, I am struck by how their sin and the sin of others around them lead them to such intense despair. These young teens found no hope left in their world, no grace, and no one who understood what they were experiencing. As Christians, we have a God who provides all these things and more. The hope the world brings is pale, and depends on our sinful lives and world “getting better.” There is infinite hope found in the grace of God and the forgiveness Jesus provides for everyone at the cross. The Gospel message we have is so much more powerful and life-changing than any PSA could ever hope to be. Why are we hesitant to share it? Where are our messages to our students and to the public? Are our churches places where these students could hear what God has done for them or are they only places where they will find more bullying and attacks?
These kids are OUR kids, the ones God has placed on our hearts. I look at the ages of these students, and think of the youth I work with who are exactly the same age. Yet, Christian churches are often the last adopters when it comes to taking up such an important cause. The Christian community must stand up and take action just as media outlets and celebrities have done. When I think of what I can do, I remember that one of these students turned to the Christian faith in an attempt to find some peace. If he came to my youth ministry, what would I want him to find?
I know many of you who read these blogs have strong feelings and great ideas for us as Christians to share. Please take the time to have this conversation with other youth leaders here or in your own community. Share with us what you are doing to help students who struggle with bullying and how you are working to prevent more of these heart-breaking deaths.