Adolescence is difficult. Add to that the pressure to be "normal" and go with the crowd, and the teen years can be overwhelming. Last week, gay teen Kenneth Weishuhn surrendered to relentless taunts from bullies by taking his own life. It goes without saying that each time a young person commits suicide is a sad day for us all. But to know the suicide could have been prevented makes the blow especially hard.
Reading Kenneth's story and listening to the voices of teens in similar situations stirs up a mix of emotions for me. The first is frustration. Frustration at what seems like a lack of progress since I wrote about this issue on the NotEnoughGood blog more than a year ago. Though more attention has been brought to the issues of bullying and homophobia, it doesn't seem to be enough to stop tortured teens from finding solace in suicide.
I am not ignoring the success of anti-bullying campaigns at schools and efforts by LGBT focused organizations to raise awareness of the issue. I am saying that we need more and now. This issue impacts all young people and so there needs to be all hands on deck for our children. Instead of outsourcing this very hard work to specialized organizations, we have to empower ALL youth organizations, school personnel and parents to act on behalf of teens being bullied for any reason.
This is not an easy fix. But we can start by deploying what we know works in the youth development arena. Teachers, parents, coaches, ministers, mentors and peers all need to know how to address bullying and to support teens questioning their sexuality or identity. A sports coach needs to know how to stop the use of anti-gay and transgender language. A teacher needs to feel empowered to identify and seek administrative interventions for victims of bullying. Parents and mentors need to know where to get support for a child who is coming out.
There should be continued strategic efforts to remove the negative language, actions and beliefs that lead any young person to feel isolated and alone in their schools and communities. More resources should be provided to LGBT organizations, suicide prevention (like the Trevor Project) and education focused organizations like GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) to provide capacity building, training and support to all people working with youth. It also requires time and effort on the part of all organizations working with young people and openness to address issues that might fall outside of their mission.
All places should be safe and welcoming for these teens and they should be able to seek support from any adult, at any time. The Alliance for Positive Youth Development is working everyday to remove the silos in the youth sector in order to help make these safe havens a reality. Through shared resources, best practices and learning, all individuals and organizations working with youth will have access to the same knowledge of how to address youth issues.
The teen years are topsy turvy. During this time where a bad day can turn into the end of the world in the matter of seconds, we need to focus on more than just "teen angst." For some teens, simple issues like a fight with a friend, a break-up or a failing grade are a walk in the park compared to coping with being "different." Constant bullying, harassment and isolation by their family, classmates and other adults in their life make each day unbearable.
With that in mind, we need to do everything in our collective power to save these children today. Not one day when they're no longer teenagers because "kids are mean." We all know that mean kids grow up to be mean adults. But we need to act TODAY before we have to mourn the loss of yet another teen who lacked support and options for stopping the pain. If your organization is tackling these tough issues, join and support collective work by connecting with the Alliance for Positive Youth Development. Together, we can improve the lives of young people in crisis by sharing what works, research and resources.