When David Chung took his own life a few weeks ago, his death sent shockwaves through a community that knew him as the smiling Nellie’s bartender. As hundreds gathered at his funeral service, many only wanted to remember the happiness he brought to those around him.
But Chung’s death is a reminder of a serious and often silent illness that has long plagued the LGBT community. According to a 2008 study from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, lesbian, gay and bisexual youths and young adults are three times more likely to report suicidal ideation (thoughts about suicide) and as high as seven times more likely to have reported attempting suicide. Research in these areas is still limited since mortality data does not report sexual orientation.
And while LGBT teen suicide has gotten a lot of attention in the last two years since a spate of bullying and suicide cases have been reported around the country leading to gay columnist Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign and renewed awareness of the Trevor Project (thetrevorproject.org), an LGBT youth suicide prevention non-profit, depression and suicide disproportionately affect LGBT people at various ages.
Randy Pumphrey, manager of behavioral health at Whitman-Walker Health, says part of suicide prevention is being able to tell the warning signs. He admits, however, that it is not easy for people not trained in the medical field to differentiate between normal ups and downs and full-blown depression.
“I think it is going to be hard, unless you know the person really well,” he says. “You need to watch for extreme changes in behavior.”
Some of these behavioral changes include not acting the same at work or in social groups, withdrawing from social situations, engaging in more risky activities and verbalizing a death threat or wish.
“A lot of people will make outright allusions to suicide like, ‘I won’t be here anymore,’” says Tamara Pincus, a clinical social worker and therapist. “They may even start to give their possessions away to people, indicating that they are making plans to take their lives.”
Both Pumphrey and Pincus cite the stigma LGBT people face as a big stressor on those already predisposed to depression.
“It might be internalized homophobia,” Pumphrey says. “People who are having trouble identifying as gay or lesbian when they are in a heterosexual marriage or not being able to come out at their job, they might attempt suicide. This feeling of rejection, that can be a really huge thing.”
Mary Lou Wallner, minister at T.E.A.C.H. Ministries, directly understands how rejection can affect a person. Her daughter, Anna, committed suicide in 1997. Wallner says her daughter came out to her in a letter in 1988.
“At the time I was deeply entrenched in a conservative church,” she says. “When she came out, I thought that it was an abomination. I told her so in a letter.”
In the letter, she wrote, “I will never accept that in you. I feel it’s a terrible waste, besides being spiritually and morally wrong … I do and will continue to love you, but I will always hate that.”
Waller says she did not understand that her sexual orientation was not a choice. Nine years went by during which they continued contact but then in 1996, Anna began seeing a therapist who encouraged her to cut off contact with her family. Wallner began collecting cards and money she wanted to give her daughter in a shoebox so when they began speaking she could give them to her. Wallner never got the chance.
“There were probably a ton of warning signs,” she says. “I feel there were clues she was trying to give me. I have many, many regrets.”
Before Anna came out to her mother, she tried slitting her wrists and in another incident, took a whole bottle of aspirin. In hindsight, Wallner says she would have, “gotten in her car and driven to her right away” once she had cut off communication.
Pumphrey says the challenge is not only identifying the warning signs of depression, but also taking action. He says it might be a challenge to speak with someone who is going through this, but in the end it would be worth it.
“What happens in our culture is people are afraid to ask the questions about how a person is thinking and feeling,” he says. “If a person is having suicidal thoughts, they are usually thinking about how they are going to do it. Getting their plan helps you intervene and it may buy you some time.”
If a person seems to be posing an immediate threat to themselves or others, Pumphrey says the person should be taken to an emergency room or 911 should be called. This way he/she can be evaluated and possibly get treatment.
“My prerogative at this time is going to be their safety,” he says. “They may be angry upfront because it feels like a violation, but this is really serious and they might need help.”
Pincus says there are still several challenges facing the LGBT community, especially teenagers and young adults who are really connected to their family. She suggests if families are not supportive of their child’s sexual orientation, that person should seek support outside of their family.
“I think we would like to say that our society is getting past the stigma of LGBT, but we are really not,” she says. Pincus, who came out as bi when she was 16, says that the continual harassment and bullying that occurs in schools and other social venues to LGBT people is a major reason why the suicide rate is higher than for other groups.
“People are still getting beat up for holding hands with their partners and transgender people are getting shot because of their gender identity,” she says.
Since her daughter’s death, Wallner has shared her story with other groups around the country and was featured in the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So.” She began T.E.A.C.H. Ministries, which stands for “To Educate About the Consequences of Homophobia.” She tries to spread the message of tolerance, not only for the LGBT community, but also for those who may not understand completely.
While she does not discuss scripture with others, she does have a message for other believers.
“It’s not a choice, if it is not a choice it can’t be a sin,” she says.