Teenage Suicide typically gets under reported, for good reason, there is the risk of glorifying the behavior and the risk of copycats or clusters of suicides. I remember when I was a kid there were a number of teen suicides that occurred and there was hardly any media coverage. That is mostly true today unless something can be blamed because we seem to believe we must make sense of what is, in most of our minds, a senseless act.
For instance look at the disparity between two recent suicides that took place in Iowa last week. One young man, Carson VandeVenter, a 14-year-old freshman at Valley Southwoods High School in West Des Moines took his own life. Mary Stegmeir of The Des Moines Register wrote a piece highlighting suicide warning signs and it was an educational and informative piece. She wrote a complementary, practically identical piece focused on parents on the same day.
No details were given, and that was it. Contrast that with the recent suicide of another teenager, Kenneth James Weishuhn, Jr. in the Northest Iowa town of Primghar, IA, Weishuhn was a freshman at South O’Brien High School in Paulina, IA. The difference here was the that Weishuhn said that he was gay and was bullied as a result. Look at the difference in coverage as seen on a Storify entry by Kyle Munson of The Des Moines Register. Munson wrote two stories and the Register posted a video of the sister. The Sioux City Journal had two stories and then their entire front page on Sunday was focused on their anti-bullying editorial.
The Des Moines Register even had an article about that.
Let me ask you – which 14-year-old young men’s death were more tragic? VandeVenter’s or Weishuhn’s? Do we not think kids at Valley Southwoods are mourning? The reaction of the media and a couple members of the Iowa Legislature tells you their answer. By their response it seems as if they believe Weishuhn’s suicide is more tragic. They have also found their scapegoat – bullying. For the record I believe bullying is a problem, and I’m saying that from my 20 years of experience working with teenagers. It’s been a problem for years and years and years. The Sioux City Journal discusses the documentary Bully which apparently was filmed in Sioux City and they recommend that people see it. I do as well, I plugged the film earlier this month. Bullying is definitely a problem, and it is a problem that extends far beyond homosexual kids which giving The Sioux City Journal credit, they acknowledge that in their editorial today:
Sadly, Kenneth’s story is far from unique. Boys and girls across Iowa and beyond are targeted every day. In this case sexual orientation appears to have played a role, but we have learned a bully needs no reason to strike. No sense can be made of these actions.
Now our community and region must face this stark reality: We are all to blame. We have not done enough. Not nearly enough.
I don’t disagree with that sentiment. We need to do what we can to stop bullying, and it is certainly more than a school issue. Parents, churches and communities must be involved. We also need to have a media and a Legislature that doesn’t focus solely on turning the anti-bullying message into homosexual propaganda. It shouldn’t matter what background of the student or what the reason is, bullying is wrong – period. I said that back in 2007 when addressing the anti-bullying measure passed by the Iowa Legislature. If you care about bullying, then care about it when it happens to any kid, not just certain kids.
Another problem I have with this type of coverage is that we also can’t be quick to point to the scapegoat of bullying with Weishuhn’s suicide either. This certainly isn’t new as it has already been a problem in the national media. While it is certainly a factor in this particular case, it’s irresponsible and it sends the wrong message.
This puts forth bullying as a “cause” of suicide. It normalizes suicide as a rational response to bullying when it is anything but. That is a dangerous message to send. To commit suicide one must bypass our inherent tendency towards self preservation. It is a choice the person being bullied makes, but typically there is far more going on than just being bullied. Committing suicide is a choice. Victims of bullying don’t have to resolve the problem this way and the vast majority of kids who are bullied don’t.
I believe that much of the local media coverage in the case of Kenneth James Weishuhn, Jr. has gone beyond raising awareness of the issue and instead has sensationalized it. This was incredibly tragic and unfortunately it is being used by some to promote an agenda that has little to do with suicide or bullying prevention.