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Gay Youth Suicide

SHARYL ATTKISSON: When a teenager commits suicide, it's a tragic loss that shakes family, friends, and often the whole community. Recent publicity about teen suicide has led to more time and money being spent to prevent further tragedies. But those efforts may not go far enough to help one group of young people at very high risk, those who are gay. HealthWeek's Andrew Holtz looks at how some in the medical community are trying to help.

BILL CLAYTON: "Get that camera off me!"

ANDREW HOLTZ: Bill Clayton's mother describes him as an imp, full of energy. But Bill was also bisexual. And though his family accepted his sexual orientation, others in his hometown of Olympia, Washington did not. He was harassed. And then one day he and two friends were attacked. Bill was beaten unconscious. About a week after the assault, Bill and his friends spoke here at a rally in downtown Olympia. A couple of hundred people showed up, including the mayor. But even that strong showing of community support wasn't enough. Bill feared his future, even as he thanked his supporters.

BILL CLAYTON: But as an openly bisexual person in Olympia, I am probably -- or may be the victim of this sort of thing again.

ANDREW HOLTZ: A few weeks later, he stayed home from school, and swallowed one pill after another. His mother says the stress of a hostile world was just too much.

GABI CLAYTON: He took a massive overdose. There was no doubt that this was intended to be not a cry for help, but the end. And he committed suicide.

ANDREW HOLTZ: How old was he?

GABI CLAYTON: He was 17.

ANDREW HOLTZ: Bill Clayton had threatened suicide before. He had seen counselors. He'd been hospitalized twice, and treated for depression.

GABI CLAYTON: It wasn't because he couldn't cope with being bisexual, it was because he wasn't safe being bisexual, being who he was at his core and being open about that.

ANDREW HOLTZ: Bill's story is all too common. Penn State University psychologist Tony D'Augelli studied hundreds of gay or lesbian teens in 14 cities. He says their rate of suicide attempts is more than double the average.

ANTHONY D'AUGELLI, PhD, PENN STATE UNIVERSITY: In the studies we've done, the numbers get up to 30%, 40%.

ANDREW HOLTZ: In Dr. D'Augelli's study, 80% of gay or lesbian teens reported persistent verbal abuse; 44% said they'd been threatened with attacks; and 23% said their property had been vandalized. Almost two out of three said they felt overwhelmed to the point they couldn't function.

ANTHONY D'AUGELLI, PhD, PENN STATE UNIVERSITY: They deal with enormous amounts of stress, and that gets internalized, it gets brought into themselves, and it can lead to people feeling bad about themselves, and feeling so bad that they'd like life not to go on.

ANDREW HOLTZ: Gabi Clayton spends hours online encouraging gay youth to hang on. And she works with organizations where young people can meet for mutual support and advice. One such group, located in Olympia, is Stonewall Youth.

MONICA LEWIS: The group is really important because it does create a community where you're safe to talk about your feelings and about things that are going on in your life.

ANDREW HOLTZ: One member, whose face cannot be shown because she's only 15, says meeting with other gays and lesbians helps her keep going.

TEEN: Before I came to Stonewall, I was suicidal a lot of the time. And, now like, I started coming here and once a week I can talk about my problems, and just kind of vent what's going on in my life.

ANDREW HOLTZ: These youth have found a safe place. But the author of a book on the medical needs of gay youth, Doctor Nancy Futterman, say physicians also need to get involved.

DONNA FUTTERMAN, MD, MONTEFIORE MEDICAL CENTER: I think gay teens need to know that there are providers who understand their lives, and understand what they are going to be facing.

ANDREW HOLTZ: At this clinic at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, Doctor Futterman works to create a place where teens feel comfortable discussing sexual identity issues. Armando Chavez says the clinic was the first place he felt safe revealing his sexual orientation.

ARMANDO CHAVEZ: She's really nice to me. She's really cool.

DONNA FUTTERMAN, MD: Because we knew that he was gay, we were able to give him the medical exam he needed, the prevention information he needed, and be explicit and help him directly for who he is.

ANDREW HOLTZ: And that's why Doctor Futterman says doctors shouldn't assume their teenage patients are straight. And they should know the warning signs of depression that might lead to suicide. As Bill Clayton's mother, Gabi, knows, the psychological wounds caused by hostility toward gay youth can be lethal.

GABI CLAYTON: The mental health issue of not being okay with it yourself wouldn't be there if it was okay in the world, if it was safe.

SHARYL ATTKISSON: Here to talk more about preventing teen suicide is Susan White-Bowden, author of "Everything to Live For." She wrote the book to help other parents after her 17-year-old son, Jody, committed suicide. Your son was not gay, but you knew he was suffering some emotional problems. I think one of the most frightening things for parents is, normal problems sound a lot, to some people, like signs of suicide problems. How do you tell the difference?

SUSAN WHITE-BOWDEN, AUTHOR, "EVERYTHING TO LIVE FOR: Well, I think looking back, dramatic change. I knew Jody was depressed over the loss of his girlfriend, and he'd go to his room and lie on his bed and listen to music, and I'd try to cheer him up. I'd try to take his mind off of it. He stopped worrying about how he looked, his appearance, a kid who always took a shower and had fresh clothes on. He stopped caring about things like that. I know I've heard from other people that their kids would give things away, or write a will, or their grades would fail in school. So any dramatic change in your child, look into it, ask about it, what's wrong, what's happening in your life?

SHARYL ATTKISSON: You have said before, if you knew then what you know now, you believe he would still be alive. Specifically, what would you have done differently?

SUSAN WHITE- BOWDEN: Oh, I do. So many things. Oh, Sharyl, so many things. I would have asked him, first of all, if he was so depressed that he was thinking about suicide. I would have mentioned that word "suicide". I would have released the pressure valve. It's okay! Give kids permission to talk about this unspeakable thing called suicide. It's a normal feeling.

SHARYL ATTKISSON: And then the next step, though, once a parent has broached that subject, if you're not the one that's capable of helping, or if he's not opening up to you, what do you do?

SUSAN WHITE- BOWDEN: Get somebody else! Get somebody from outside, a counselor, a doctor, a minister, a priest, whomever! That they can open up to, because sometimes you're too emotionally tied to that child to have them feel comfortable in talking about these deep, deep, which can be deadly, feelings.

SHARYL ATTKISSON: Susan White-Bowden, thank you for being willing to talk about this, help other people.

For more information on preventing teen suicide, or any other HealthWeek story, you can call our toll-free number shown at the end of the program.

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