At least four teenage suicide incidents in late September and October unleashed a whirlwind of national media coverage focusing on bullying based on teens’ perceived sexual orientation.
One of the most widely reported suicide victims was Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly “outed” him by streaming a video of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man.
The majority of the media coverage has focused on the bullying and intolerance of gay teens that could potentially drive them into a state of depression, or contemplate suicide. According to Pacific’s School of Professional Psychology professor Alyson Williams, teens that are of a different sexual orientation, race, or socioeconomic status are at greater risk for mental health issues.
“It’s not new news that gay teens are more at risk for mental health issues,” said Williams, whose curriculum focus is on topics regarding children and adolescents. However, the recent number of suicides has prompted heightened awareness about teens and depression.
Williams said it is difficult to estimate the number of teens suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts on a national or even state level because of a lack of shared information between teens and those who can provide professional help.
According to a 2007 report by the Oregon Department of Human Services, suicide was the second leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year-old Oregonians and there were 681 reported attempts among those 18 years old and younger.
The School of Professional Psychology offers students an opportunity to learn more about and focus on treating children and adolescents through its doctoral program’s tracks. The Child and Adolescent Track allows psychology students to eventually use their clinical training to go to schools and community centers and not only assess suicide risks but also how to emphasize a healthy state of mind among children and teens.
Williams said emphasizing a healthy mental state at an early age gives clinical psychologist more time to assess and prevent mental health issues than trying to start after a person has reached adulthood.
The track is certified as a generalist program through the American Psychological Association, meaning that students who complete the track are not specialists but clinical psychologists who studied a specific area of interest through elective courses. Williams said the track is a selective group of about six to eight students each year.
Pacific’s effort to contribute to the cause extends beyond professional training and treatment. Undergraduates have sought ways to show support for gay youth and to promote tolerance on campus. On Oct. 5, the Rainbow Coalition held a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyler Clementi and on Oct. 11, the Center for Gender Equity hosted a “Love Chalk” event which encouraged Pacific students to write messages of love and tolerance on the university’s sidewalks.
CGE has also arranged for the openly gay sex and relationship columnist, Dan Savage, to speak at Pacific on Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. in Taylor-Meade Auditorium. After the suicide of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, Savage created a YouTube channel called “It Gets Better,” which features people ranging from President Barack Obama to Ellen DeGeneres assuring teens that there are adults who will support them and provide help if they are bullied. Tickets to the Dan Savage presentation are free but students need to pick them up at the University Box Office in the Taylor-Meade Auditorium.