Troy Williams remembers the taunts from his classmates. The emotion is clear in his voice as he describes how they mocked him for being gay. And it started well before he could get to his teenage years.
“I barely graduated from elementary school because I was bullied so severely. I didn’t have a conception of me as a gay kid. But I tell you what, the bullies, they knew. They teased me viciously,” said Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah. “I think that is a pretty typical experience for an LGBTQ kid. To be harassed. To be marginalized. To be diminished.”
Williams has dedicated himself to helping the LGBTQ community in Utah, especially in saving a population that has higher suicide risks. He notes that homosexual youth are four times more likely to consider suicide. The rates are eight times higher if their homes are non-accepting of their sexual orientation. The Trevor Project also notes that nationally, 40 percent of transgender adults have attempted suicide.
Dr. Scott Whittle, child psychiatrist and medical director for SelectHealth, has worked with gay youths experiencing thoughts of suicide. “The tough ones are when the child shows up at 15 or 16 years old and [they are] in that situation. They really see themselves as being alone in this world, and they are afraid to reach out to the people closest to them for solutions. They’re stuck for a period of time, and it can be a long and painful period of time,” said Whittle.
Whittle added to his experience that “on the positive side, when the situation changes, when the person finds the courage to ask for help from the people that [they] have been afraid to ask for help, the great majority of the time, it goes really well.”
Williams and Whittle see hope in the future for LGBTQ youth. Together, they shared their experiences and gave helpful advice on KSL’s Healthy Mind Matters radio show. The program focuses on addiction, mental health, and suicide prevention.
The importance of a tribe
Everyone wants, and needs, to belong to a tribe. Schools, friends, community, a church — all are examples of a tribe. And it all starts with the most important tribe to a person — their family.
“We know what drives suicide ideation — when young people feel alone, isolated, alienated. They experience despair. When they cannot see a positive future for themselves,” Williams said. “That provides us an opportunity. Because if that is what’s driving suicide ideation, then the cure for that is greater inclusion, greater cohesiveness, greater bonding.”
Williams recalled the bullying he experienced as a child and how he could not tell his father — because he feared the rejection of his most important tribe if he told him he was gay. So he suffered from the bullies in silence and alone.
Whittle understands the first conversation about a child being gay can be terrifying for both child and parents. His advice for parents is to slow the conversation down.
“So if a child says ‘Yes, I’m gay,’ then you take a deep, slow breath; you make sure your face is one of showing love and concern; and you pick your next words,” said Whittle.
For LGBTQ youth who are experiencing the loss of the tribe and feel alone, there are places like the Pride Center in Salt Lake City that can connect youths to people who know and understand the problems and guide them to resources that can help them.
If parents are worried about their child and whether they are considering suicide — they should ask their child about it.
“Any time a parent is worried about something like that, they should just bring it up. I think a normal worry for a parent is that if I talk about it, then I may make it more likely. Just to let people know — that isn’t true. Talking about suicide is an important first step to making things safer, and talking about it releases some pressure,” Whittle said.
If someone is contemplating suicide, then all their tribes should help rally around them. The school system, church, community, and their health provider are resources that should be used.
Health providers are frontline responders to getting someone help. Bring the topic up to your family doctor — they should be ready to help.
Finally, whether someone is being bullied or alone and afraid, all of us also can be a tremendous support for anyone in danger.
“One of the tenants of protecting people from being hurt is to have folks around them to help protect them if something isn’t going right,” said Whittle. “We live in an especially kind community. Our community will tend to respond to folks saying ‘We expect more.’ We expect to treat people better.”
LGBTQ and suicide resources
There are several local centers and national support lifelines that can help support and protect LGBTQ youth.
Encircle House — Family and youth support center. Located in Provo, with a new center opening in Salt Lake City in summer 2018.
Utah Pride Center — A safe space for education, support, and events for LGBTQ youth.
Suicide Prevention Resources
1-800-273-8255 — National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Available 24 hours, 7 days a week.
Safe UT App — Smartphone app providing confidential crisis intervention, 24 hours, 7 days a week.