Memorializing Suicides Without Heroizing Suicide

Gay blogger Jim Burroway believes that Lady Gaga’s advocacy for the LGBT community is genuine and passionate but worries about a backfire effect of her decision to prominently dedicate a song to one of her young fans who took his life recently:

as I watch this video of her performing “Hair” and dedicating it to Jamey Rodemeyer at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, I can’t help but thinking that, in some small way, Jamey achieved in death something he never had in life: a song dedicated to him from the star performer who he described as a huge inspiration to him. If he were alive — and I’m assuming he was like most star-struck teens who worshiped their musical idols — his thrill at her mentioning his name before thousands of adoring fans would have been unmeasurable. But he’s not alive. He killed himself last week after enduring yet more bullying, even after he himself had made his own “It Gets Better”video last spring.

The problem:

As I watch this video, I can’t help but recall moments of darkness and despair in my own life when I imagined the huge wave of grief that would be unleashed by my own funeral. I dreamed of my tormenters’ lives forever ruined by their guilt for having pushed me over the edge. Everyone else would know who they were, and they would shun them the way I was shunned. Who’s sorry now, huh?

Who among us haven’t imagined something like this for themselves? The wailing and rending of clothing as people finally realized that their cruelty and neglect would haunt them for the rest of their days, the outpouring of love in death that we felt was withheld from us in life, and, in the scene’s dénouement, a song in our honor because even the greatest pop hero (in my version, it was either Bobby Sherman or, later, Cher ) would know our names.

To prevent such fantasy thinking leading to reckless suicide, Burroway points to key advice from an a must read 12 point guide (PDF) for responsibly discussing suicide and the LGBT community:

7. DON’T normalize suicide by presenting it as the logical consequence of the kinds of bullying, rejection, discrimination and exclusion that LGBT people often experience. Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy LGBT person—or drawing a direct, causal link between suicide and the bullying or discrimination that LGBT people often face—can encourage at-risk individuals to identify with the victim (or the victim’s life circumstances) and increase risk of suicidal behavior.

8. DON’T idealize suicide victims or create an aura of celebrity around them. Research shows that idealizing people who have died by suicide may encourage others to identify with the victim or seek to emulate them.

Read more.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • James Davis

    Personally, I think it’s terrible advice. Lines like number four’s “can lead to an emphasis on messages that
    can increase contagion risk”, number six’s “can increase contagion risk among vulnerable individuals”, and number seven’s “can encourage at risk individuals to identify with the victim” show that they simply do not understand suicide. Taking one’s life is not caused by a contagion, and it isn’t going to happen because some “at risk individual” sees a similarity between themselves and the victim. (I find that this is a common problem with suicide prevention groups. So few of them seem to have people who have actually contemplated suicide telling them what is going through a suicidal person’s head.)

    Mr. Burroway doesn’t seem to realize that an actually suicidal person does not, usually, care at all about what will happen after they die. It is about ending the pain, whether it is physic or psychic, by no longer being around to endure it.

    All this aside, I think there is an improper focus here on preventing the suicides in the short-term. As a result he advice given by that pdf seems more about sweeping the problem under the rug and avoiding talking about suicides in detail so that there are less suicides now, while refusing to mention that the higher rate of GLBT suicides are quite clearly related to bullying and GLBT hatred.

    Instead, I suggest ignoring the risk of suicide contagion, sensationalizing every story possible, and forcing society to confront, directly, that it’s hatred of GLBT people is killing people. Given that the GLBT suicide rate will approach the general population’s rate only when GLBT people are not stigmatized, I feel that we can save more people by fighting GLBT hatred head-on and ending it than we can by trying to prevent improper coverage right now.

    Let Lady Gaga sing.

    • Nepenthe

      James, you are profoundly wrong, at least with your data. Suicide contagion and suicide clusters are real phenomena backed up by piles of studies. Other self-injurious behavior (i.e. eating disorders, cutting) show similar effects. There is a reason that the WHO has guidelines on how media should portray suicide.

      You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.

      For my own part, as a person who has experienced suicidal ideation since childhood and had friends who have attempted and died by suicide, I think the advice is quite sound. What will happen after is a very common thought, especially for adolescents, and having one’s favorite pop singer use you as an example is the sort of romanticization that is so tempting.

    • DuWayne

      With all due respect, other than the fact that suicide clusters exist, what we have is supposition. There is virtually no research into suicide, in the context of suicidal ideation, because such research is virtually always deemed unethical. The problem being that the very act of exploring the suicidal ideations of someone who is or might be suicidal, in the context of gathering data, could very plausibly push them to act.

      Is there some risk that this will be the catalyst for someone else deciding to act on their desire to die? Yes. But there is also the likelihood that someone else is going to see that there are people who actually do care, who are a hell of a lot greater than the people who are hurting them. And there is the likelihood that some of the people who are doing the hurting are going to see that and realize that they need to rethink what they are doing to try to feel better about themselves.

    • Nomen Nescio

      The problem being that the very act of exploring the suicidal ideations of someone who is or might be suicidal, in the context of gathering data, could very plausibly push them to act.

      yeah, because talking to them and unjudgmentally listening to what they have to say about their lives, pains, and thoughts can only possibly hurt, right?

      actually, the problem is that “exploring the ideations of someone who might be suicidal” all too often gets wrapped up in a big bag of judgmental “therapy” by people who think that’s the “ethical” thing to do, and that only ends up making a miserable person’s life even more miserable. just plain listening and (maybe) commiserating is more likely to simply function as emotional relief, but it’s too passive for the do-gooders’ liking.

      (yeah, this is another of the tee shirts i’ve earned the hard way. i don’t wear it much anymore, but it put its imprint on me indelibly. almost nobody who’s not been suicidal themselves seem to have a clue how such lines of thinking function, which is well and good, wouldn’t want anybody to gain that knowledge who doesn’t have to — but the smart thing for them to do, then, is to shut up and listen instead of trying to intervene in somebody else’s life out of total ignorance. such intervention is all but guaranteed to fuck things up even worse.)

    • DuWayne

      yeah, because talking to them and unjudgmentally listening to what they have to say about their lives, pains, and thoughts can only possibly hurt, right?

      But that is not how science works and thus the problem. Sitting with someone who is suicidal and asking the right questions, mostly listening is exactly the best possible treatment. This is frequently coupled with a “suicide contract” which is a signed contract asserting that the client won’t commit suicide before the next session. The latter is often used even in the cases of persons who are in patient under observation, as it seems to alleviate some of the stress caused by being under restrictions.

      Unfortunately that provides a whole lot of anecdotes. While case studies aren’t completely useless, they aren’t able to provide the sort of rigorous data that I am talking about – especially if the therapist is doing what they should. We have a lot of ideas about suicide, but for the most part they are commonsensical notions based on the observations we are limited to. There are several things that could be garnered from delving into suicidal ideations, not the least being able to better identify kids who are at significant risk. The other big gain would be in better understanding the patterns that emerge around suicides.

      The recommendations made by WHO are based on commonsensical assumptions largely based on anecdotes coming from people who didn’t actually kill themselves. While specifically naming a child who has killed his or herself might be a bad idea, a) we don’t actually know that for sure and b) the guidelines (not actually only asserted by WHO) have fostered an environment in which suicide is virtually ignored by pop media.

      Understand that I am not trying to claim we should engage in the sort of research that would help us understand causal relationships better. No matter how useful the information might be, there is too significant a risk associated with trying to do the necessary research.

      And please don’t assume that these “interfering do-gooders” you are upset with haven’t been suicidal. A fairly significant proportion of those psychologists most interested in suicide have had intensely personal experiences with it – whether their own ideations, or the ideations – realized or not, of people they care about. Also don’t assume that your experience is the standard to operate by. If human behavior were uniform and simple, we would have gotten a handle on suicide and many other psychological issues a long time ago. In my case, if *anyone* had realized how badly I wanted to die, I might well have done it in spite of my terror of hell. My friend Dan on the other hand(who ironically was the first of my childhood friends to die as an adult), was convinced that he would have done it if I hadn’t intervened by getting him help through school.

  • DuWayne

    James has it fairly well pegged…

    There actually is a relatively small risk of sensationalizing and inspiring copycats, but it is not as likely as Burroway seems to believe it is. Are there kids who will romanticize that idea? Sure. But not a hell of a lot who are actually going to kill themselves over it – certainly not only because of it. Contrasting that with the benefit of celebrity sensationalizing the issue, it is a no brainer.

    This is a big problem and not talking about it will never solve it. Kids taking their own lives because cowardly, weak minded little fucking bastards need to feel bigger is inexcusable and unacceptable. Yet there is still a prevalent, if not prevailing attitude that bullying is just kids being kids – that it is normal and in it’s normalcy must be acceptable on some level. That stupidity is not going to change until these deaths and their connections to bullying are shoved so far down those dumbasses throats that they bloody well choke on it.

    As for how this affects the victims, I mean the victims who are still alive, we absolutely need to draw that connection so we can address the problem. It isn’t going to solve itself and if Lady Gaga wants to be a catalyst for change, more power to her with my appreciation.

    The thing about Burroway’s fantasy is that he is exactly right with; “Who among us haven’t imagined something like this for themselves?”

    While I daresay that some of us mightn’t have, if we’re being honest and not living with revised memories there are few enough of us who would say no. While it may not have been that well defined or articulated, most kids at some point or another think about how terrible their peers, parents, friends, siblings would feel if I just up and offed myself. This is a *very* common experience, one that just happens to be rather more prevalent amongst those who are bullied, depressed or otherwise disenfranchised.

    What is less common, is the maintenance of those thoughts when we have made a plan. All that peripheral bullshit generally falls away with the stark reality of choosing whether or not to go through with it. What is generally left when we’re down to the wire is emotion and will – not visions of rock stars singing songs about us. We are thinking about whether we want to fucking live or not, possibly about how people we care about are going to feel. No matter what we might have written in a note, in the end we don’t care about the assholes who might have hurt us, we care about the pain and in some cases how much we hate ourselves – hate being ourselves.

    This is really a war on two fronts; one to stop the damned bullying and another to help alleviate the pain and fight some profoundly negative self beliefs. Gestures such as the one Lady Gaga made are effective for both.

  • Pteryxx

    *shrug* The kids who bullied me wouldn’t have given a damn if I killed myself; in fact they suggested it, often. I contemplated suicide solely to put an end to the torment. If nobody cared that I was alive, why should anyone care if I died? But I talked myself out of it, mostly because I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of gloating over my death. And no, I’m not imagining that. Another severely bullied kid at my school vanished one day, and the bullies bragged about driving him to kill himself, while telling me “You’re next.”

    I suspect the “everyone’ll be sorry” fantasy exists more often among mainstream kids than it does among us isolated freaks.

    • julian

      But I talked myself out of it, mostly because I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of gloating over my death.

      I had a similar reason for not committing suicide.

      While none of my bullies had ever wished for me to die (I’d managed to lose them by high school) my family has always been vocal about how atheists see no value in life which is why they kill themselves so often. The thought of any religious bastard using my death to scare more young kids into blind obedience or to tarnish other atheists helped keep my head above water.

  • jay

    I am wondering if bullying is the new ‘low self esteem’. A convenient if not always accurate frame of reference for problems.

    Now some bullies are actual physical threats, and that would fall under assault laws.

    Others, though, as popularly defined are more psychological intimidation. And their most effective victims seem to be those who, for whatever reason, seem to have no strong friendships. Even having a couple of friends who stick by you does a great deal to reduce the power of psychological intimidation.

    I tend to agree with some of the other posters here, its a MUCH more complex issue and is frequently not all due to external bullying (actually some bullies may instinctively recognize vulnerability, and like chickens pecking at a wound, go after it.)

    Suicide is often due to an internal sense of personal failure, or regret. Sometimes it’s to psychological pain that the person can’t stop, and can’t explain to anyone else. Refusing to talk about it, refusing to talk about suicide victims in positive terms does not help.

    [Side point: the definitions of 'bullying' (like the definitions of harassment, and hate speech before), now that the lawmakers have stuck their noses into it, are becoming broader. Recently a subpoena was issued to identify a Youtube poster critical of his local police department, essentially he was 'bullying' the police (and a judge bought that argument)]

  • martalayton

    In my experience, and setting aside things like responses to psychological/physical disorders that are more properly labeled euthanasia, I’d say most suicides are irrational responses. As one book I read put it after someone close to me completed suicide, it is a permanent “solution” to a passing problem – certainly not a problem that makes life not worth living. Things just seem like that at the time.

    I don’t mean this in a judgmental way, btw. Irrational does not necessarily imply a failing, and most teenagers are irrational in some way or other; suicidees just have the bad luck to be irrational about something that has the devastating consequence of ending their life. In either event, suicide’s irrationality does mean that their reactions to things like this won’t be easily predictable or easily attributable to anyone’s actions.

    Personally, I am less worried about how things like Lady Gaga’s dedication will affect the suicidal, than I am about how it will affect the bereaved. If someone is truly suicidal enough to get beyond fantasizing to actually doing, they have either a psychological fault, an inadequate support network, or some other short-circuit that makes that jump possible. Any number of things could set them off. And while sensitivity is called for, I think the real danger is that this complicates the already complicated grief in the wake of a suicide even further. On top of the normal grief that goes along with any death, when the death is a suicide emotions can be even more complicated; I know in my case and also in the case of other people in similar positions I knew, you end up hating the person who killed themselves and also wondering how well you knew them. To see them memorialized for the suicide in such a highly public way seems like it would only make a truly shitty situation even worse.