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PFLAG Perspective: Trains, bridges and suicide

I was riding the train north recently, when we pulled to a stop in the middle of nowhere. We found out the train had hit someone. A passenger went forward to talk to a conductor and came back with the story.

A young woman had been up ahead, too close to the tracks. The engineer laid on the whistle, but the train was too big and too fast to stop. As the train neared, the woman walked back and forth across the tracks, as if trying to decide. At the last moment, she jumped.

We try to understand suicide, but mostly from the outside looking in. Studies and websites abound that lay out the statistics, explore motivations, define for us the warning signs. Always the question comes down to: what can we do?

As someone who has suffered from depression for years, I can attest to the dark spiral that can lead to hopelessness and thoughts of suicide.

We all can recognize the irrevocable nature of suicide from the outside; but from the inside, in the grip of despair, it's not our thoughts -- but a force -- that can push us toward escape, relief, and resolution.

Amazingly, moments after a depression lifts, we say, “Wow, what a crazy idea. I’m so grateful I didn’t act on that.” In that instant of turning away from the irrevocable, a whole future -- a life -- is saved.

That’s why it is important to recognize when someone may be contemplating suicide, and how we can help. We may be building a bridge for that person, to the rest of their life.

LGBT kids have extraordinary challenges in this regard, which came into focus last year after a number of tragic losses were made public. Among them Justin Aaberg, the target of anti-gay bullying; Billy Lucas, the target of a "sustained campaign of bullying"; Seth Walsh, who hung himself after years of bullying; Tyler Clementi of Rutgers, after a callous outing on the web.

The statistics about suicide and our youth are daunting. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for 10-14-year-olds and the 3rd for the 15-19 age group in San Diego County. Over one-in-ten San Diego City Schools students (13.9%) recently reported they seriously considered suicide.

For LGBT kids the numbers are even higher. I found three widely-cited studies that found LGBT youth more likely to consider suicide.

One study found that perceived discrimination accounted for increased symptoms of depression among LGBT males and females and accounted for an elevated risk of self-harm.

A Journal of Pediatrics study (cited on CNN Health’s "The Chat" by Jennifer Bixler), found LGB youth living in unsupportive areas are 20% more likely to commit suicide than those living in supportive environments.

The San Diego City Schools program has identified a number of risk factors that can increase the likelihood of suicide. These include personal loss, depression, discrimination, rejection due to gender identity, bullying, school performance, family and relationship issues.

We can all relate to the difficulties of growing up and the tragedies that can overturn our lives. But the LGBT community understands well the added pressures of discrimination, rejection, and bullying.

A GLSEN study last summer indicated nine-of-ten LGBT youth experienced harassment. Bullying was the common thread running through the suicides of last year.

A response has taken shape here locally.

The school board for San Diego City Schools approved an historic anti-bullying policy on April 12 which will be rolled out in the next school year. At the same time they endorsed Seth’s Law (AB9) which requires all California schools to adopt bully-prevention policies.

There are also good programs that include 24/7 help lines. These include the San Diego City Schools program crisis line (1-800-479-3339).

The Trevor Project also provides life-saving and life-affirming resources including a nationwide crisis intervention lifeline, and digital community and advocacy/educational programs that create a safe environment. Their 24/7 toll free number is 866-488-7386. Chat and referrals to local resources are available at thetrevorproject.org.

Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller recently started the "It Gets Better" program, (itgetsbetter.org) with video clips from scores of people, famous and anonymous, talking about life after high school, and how it gets better.

But what do we do as individuals? What about a moment that crystalizes, where you realize someone you know may be contemplating suicide? I felt helpless on a train, but there are a couple things I took away with me that I hope help me be ready to lend a hand in the future.

One is to be aware of warning signs. These include a person talking about killing him/herself; seeking lethal means; acting recklessly; depression; talking/writing/artwork about suicide or death; neglect in personal appearance; dramatic mood changes; personality changes; withdrawal; anxiety, agitation, anger; or giving away possessions.

Two is to reach out. Take the person seriously. Stay with the person. Listen. Call a program number right away so trained helpers can take over.

This may involve a change of pace in this busy life of ours. We can be too much like the train, going too fast to stop. When someone comes up with the warning signs of suicide, it's time to stop before it is too late.

Mark Thompson has been a PFLAG member for five years, including two years as co-president (with his wife Karen) and a year as treasurer. He says his experience of helping in the LGBT community has been one of the most rewarding he’s ever had. Mark has lived in San Diego since the late 1960s, is a land use/environmental consultant, and is currently working on a novel. He can be reached at mhthompson22@gmail.com.