Teenage Suicide

This is an extremely delicate topic that requires deliberate thought to be dealt with properly.

Tuesday morning a UK journalist got in touch with me for a story she is doing about a local girl, just 15-years-old, who committed suicide in January.  It seems her father says part of what contributed to her depression was that she was bullied for having red hair.  This comes on the heels of reportsthat came out less than two weeks ago that a 14-year-old boy in England took his own life last year after being bullied because he was a redhead.

Over the past two years a number of people have reached out to me to talk about their own experiences as a redhead.  Some have said they were never bullied.  Others have said it was so bad that they wanted to end their life.

The reason the journalist reached out to me was because the girl’s father is trying to get the local police department to give redheads the same hate crimes protection that other groups have.  Following the brutal 2007 murder of a goth named Sophie Lancaster, the Greater Manchester Police announced in April of 2013 that they would begin to treat crimes against goths and other subcultures as hate crimes.  At the time I remember people joking “what about gingers” on twitter.

The journalist wanted to know my perspective on it all and this is part of what I wrote to her:

“This is, as you say, a very sensitive issue.  For starters, part of the problem is that non-redheads don’t think teasing and bullying of redheads is a problem at all.  And to be fair, there is nothing wrong with my friends making the odd crack about my hair, the same way I tease my Welsh friend for being… Welsh.  But there are lines of decency that when crossed, usually by someone who isn’t a friend, that can cause a real problem to develop.  That said, I don’t know if trying to make it a hate crime is the answer.  My heart utterly breaks for that poor girl and her family.  There was also a story in the UK just last week about a boy who was found hanged in his room because he’d been bullied about being ginger.  I don’t know all the facts of either case, but in the reports about the boy, the head teacher denied that bullying was the cause, I assume because of how it would make the school look.  Basically no one thinks it’s a big deal until a child takes their own life.  But in the same way that going to a teacher and asking for help often made my experiences with bullies worse, I fear that going to the authorities and trying to get redheads hate crime protection will be seen as a joke.  (I have to be clear that I grew up in The United States and don’t fully understand the British legal system.  So I don’t understand what the protection would mean.)  The problem is that we don’t have the same history of abuse as blacks and gays and other groups you tend to think of when you talk about hate crimes.  (And thank God we don’t.)  I do think the law should be tougher on anyone who bullies a child, and if that child takes their own life there should be consequences for the bully.  And I mean that regardless of the cause of the bullying.  Put a teenager on trial for contributing to the death of another child because of bullying, make every school educate their students that this could happen to them, and maybe we can prevent it from happening in the future.”

In researching this, I came across an article in the LA times about how some people in the US are trying to use a few isolated cases of black-on-white crime to stir up racial anxiety.  The article quotes Christopher Hawthorne, director of Loyola Law School’s Juvenile Innocence & Fair Sentencing Clinic as saying “It’s always dangerous to create a ‘trend’ out of isolated but vivid instances.”  And I agree with that.  I don’t think redheads need special hate crime protection.  But the law needs to adapt in the way it deals with bullying in general.

There are two (non-ginger related) bullying cases that stand out in my mind:

Tyler Clementi was an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in 2010 when he committed suicide after his roommate used a web cam to record him kissing another man, and then used twitter to spread the video.  The roommate was charged with a series of crimes stemming from the invasion of privacy, found guilty, and sentenced to 30 days in jail (of which he served 20), 3 years probation, 300 hours of community service, and a $10,000 fine.  The charges were tied to the web cam incident, he didn’t face any charges related to the suicide.

In October of this year a 12-year-old girl in Florida committed suicide after months of alleged cyber bullying.  The local sheriff actually arrested the two girls who were accused of harassing her, and charged them with stalking, a third-degree felony.  Last week the charges were dropped and the the parents of the other two girls are now threatening to sue the sheriff.

I feel helpless and it seems like week after week there is another story about a teenager taking their own life.  I think this is a global problem and I frankly don’t know what the solution is.  I think it’s a mistake to just sit back and do nothing, but likewise I think it’s a mistake to do something rash without thinking out the consequences.  Simply doing something for sake of saying you did something is often ineffective.  Today, after thinking it over, I don’t think hate crime protection is the solution.  I think we need to do a better job of talking to young people about bullying.  I think we should talk more about mental health issues and remove the stigma associated with depression once and for all.  There is no shame in seeing a psychologist.  There is no shame in asking for help.  And finally, yes, I think lawmakers should look into finding a way to criminalize bullying.  It is illegal to physically attack someone, it should be just as illegal to bully someone to such a degree that suicide becomes a viable option in their mind.

What do you think?