Suicide shouldn’t be politicized, but…

I don’t ordinarily like to bring my political views into this blog, but there are some examples (like the Florida law that makes it illegal for a doctor to ask if there are guns in a house with young children) that seem to cross from politics into ethical dilemmas. This blog post on Mother Jones’ website, about the disturbing trend of teen suicides in Minnesota – taking place a climate of bullying and intolerance of homosexuality, and politically-pressured silence on the part of school officials – has serious implications for mental health professionals.

As I said in the post on the Michigan counseling intern who refused to work with a gay client, we all need to be sensitive to what it’s like to be an adolescent in today’s social media-heavy culture. Adolescents, gay-bashing, and social ostracism are a dangerous mixture, and school officials need to be free to provide support to teens who are struggling with issues of self-image and identity. This includes not only teens in the midst of coming to terms with being gay, but also teens who may be the targets of bullying, harassment, and social ostracism with anti-gay overtones – whether or not they are gay themselves. School personnel who are handcuffed by intolerant mandates pushed through by school boards and legislators who see a “homosexual agenda” in simply affirming human self-integrity bear responsibility when teens conclude that they are no longer able to live in the social environment in which they find themselves, and contemplate suicide as the only way out.

Michele Bachmann’s comments that anti-bullying efforts may intrude on “free speech” are particularly insensitive and warrant censure by responsible mental health professionals who work with children and adolescents:

“I think for all us our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies, always have been, always will be. I just don’t know how we’re ever going to get to point of zero tolerance and what does it mean?…What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be—will we be expecting boys to be girls?”

Her comments strike me as a throwback to the attitude of a generation ago, that kids just need to learn to “be tough” and that “coddling” them is morally wrong.This kind of attitude in a person in a leadership position in the community strikes me as frightening and irresponsible.

Bullying is wrong, period. It’s bad enough in a workplace where the target is an adult, but it’s much worse in a school setting where the targets are teens in the midst of the struggle for “identity versus role confusion,” as Erik Erikson described so well many years ago.

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