Confronting Bullying-related Suicide
How Can We Create a World Where All Young People Feel Safe?
By Rev. Meg Riley, UUA Church of the Larger Fellowship
When I was in my twenties, I worked in a residential center for teens. These were kids who were abused, abandoned, between foster homes. They were troubled kids.
Life at the shelter wasn’t easy, but there was a strong and healthy staff. The staff operated with a strong awareness of family systems—that the way teens were behaving, which might look illogical to us, was a response to family systems (often augmented by social service systems) in which such behavior filled a need.
Furthermore, when the tenor of the teen residents would veer off course, one of the first questions we would always be asked in staff meetings was, Could there be something in the staff itself which was modeling their behavior—were we mad at each other about something, was there a staff member not pulling her or his weight, was someone in the staff checked out and causing a vacuum?
Those staff meetings could resemble therapy groups. But what I learned was that, 90 percent of the time, if the adults addressed what was going on with us, if we took seriously the ways which we were not present, the teens shaped up. Their life struggles didn’t go away–we didn’t turn into Mayberry—but life in the shelter got markedly better.
I have been reflecting on this, as I watch all of the sudden attention to homophobic bullying, which has recently resulted in four publicized suicides and countless others we’ll never know about, for teens and young adults. Comments after articles I read tend to have a “Throw the book at those bullies! Lock them up for life!” quality. I don’t hear people asking the question which was asked at the residential facility where I worked: Is there something adult culture is modeling which these teens are emulating, albeit in a less nuanced, more stark fashion?
In the half century I have been watching life on this planet, I believe I have watched the United States become a more cruel and less caring place. This is true of the social policies we have created in many cases—eliminating safety nets for the poor, allowing “freedom” for a tiny minority to mean that their wealth eclipses the basic needs of the great majority, allowing people to die because they don’t have health insurance. But it’s not just policy. There is, just plain, less connection and care in our daily lives. There is less occasion for many of us to talk to neighbors, less time for overworked people of all social classes to care for children, more willingness to treat each other as annoying obstacles on overcrowded highways.
That is why I am proud to put on an unflattering orange-gold t-shirt, day after day, with the word LOVE emblazoned across my chest. Lord knows it’s not to look good! I want to remind myself, and to tell everyone who sees me, including young people, that no matter how imperfectly I embody it, LOVE is the reason I get up in the morning and standing on the side of love is my aspiration.
What would it mean for adults in our culture to ask ourselves, “What are we doing that creates the apparent increase in bullying of gay or marginalized kids?” If we asked ourselves, “How do my actions in the day conflict with my aspiration to stand on the side of love?” I wonder what thoughts would emerge, going beyond the obvious, if we thought about how to create a world for kids where they could feel safe, no matter what their identities?