The recent suicide of 18 year old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi has sparked outrage nationwide. Ellen DeGeneres spoke publicly on her talk show and a video posted on her website about how upset she was when she heard about this tragic event. “Being a teenager and figuring out who you are is hard enough” Ellen says on her video.
Many adults remember our middle and high school years as being a time of finding ourselves and learning where we fit in. It was much simpler without the threat of being bullied through social networks. Not to say that the period between childhood and adulthood was easy , because for some it was harder than it was for others.
Today there is an epidemic going on in this country. Sometimes evidence of this epidemic makes national headlines as it did in the case of Tyler Clementi. Too many others have not yet been driven to suicide but are still suffering because of the cruelty of their peers.
It would be comforting if the people that our teenagers spent their days with would take the time to notice bullying but often it goes unnoticed. Many of the school districts in this country profess that they do not tolerate bullying but that is not always the case. Overwhelmed teachers don’t always take the time to notice the teen who is withdrawn or an obvious social outcast. Sometimes when a student does attempt to fight back against bullying, they are seen as a troublemaker or told to try and get along with the ones who are bullying them.
Although the Internet has opened the world to our teenagers, it has also opened up a means to abuse and bully. In the case of Tyler Clementi, the students accused of posting the video will probably only receive probation for their crime.
This is not just an epidemic of intolerance towards homosexuality, it is an epidemic of intolerance towards anyone who is different. The girl who doesn’t have the best clothes or isn’t part of the popular crowd, the boy who prefers to read than socialize, anyone can be a target to someone who has not been taught how to respect others.
Being a teenager in these times is hard. Too many of our youth are angry and maybe we need to figure out why. It is too easy for someone to mock a peer in ways that can be completely overwhelming to a teenager who knows they are not “fitting” in. The victim of the bully is often embarrassed, ashamed or unable to find a “safe” person to tell. They may try to deal with the humiliation on their own but this leads to depression and in too many instances, suicide.
As parents we need to sit down and talk to our children and our teenagers. We need to recognize and see our children for who they really are. The child/teen who never complains may be hiding a dark secret. The signs may be there that indicate the need for a mental health evaluation or even scream out for therapy. The parent who chooses to ignore the signs instead of facing the truth is an accessory to whatever may happen. Whether your child is the bully or the victim, it is a parent’s job to know their child.
It would be great if we could count on the school system to pay attention to our children and notify us when they feel there might be something wrong. Unfortunately, teachers and administrators are not well trained in recognizing youth at risk.
As National Mental Illness Awareness week begins (the first week of October), pay attention to the teenagers in your life. As a parent, an educator or as just someone who knows a young person, listen to them when they talk. If you sense anything is “off” about them, really listen and let them know that you care. You may save someone’s life and maybe help to end this epidemic of hate.