Several of the blogs have pointed to the Disco. Inst.‘s shameful abuse of the suicide of Jesse Kilgore in an end-of-year fundraising pitch. Kilgore, a college student who had recently returned from military service in Iraq, had been challenging aspects of his upbringing, and his father (a fundamentalist pastor) concluded that reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion inspired Jesse to kill himself. The Disco. Inst. decided that the best thing to do was to glom onto that father’s grief in order to drum up end-of-year donation.
Given that the suicide rate for Iraq veterans keeps rising, I’d look past Jesse’s reading list before claiming that reading about evolution and atheism results in suicide. Perhaps I’m just overly squeamish about treating anecdotes as data.
But Disco.‘s concern for teen suicide (Kilgore was 22, but we’ll expand the boundaries for the teenage years) seems quite limited. They certainly haven’t been talking about the importance of mental health care for veterans, and they seem to be silent on a new study showing that:
Young gay people whose parents or guardians responded negatively when they revealed their sexual orientation were more likely to attempt suicide, experience severe depression and use drugs than those whose families accepted the news …
Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.
More significantly, [San Francisco State University’s Dr. Caitlin] Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with equanimity instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth’s mental health outlook.
One of the most startling findings was that being forbidden to associate with gay peers was as damaging as being physically beaten or verbally abused by their parents in terms of negative feedback, Ryan said.
The Disco. Inst. writes that “Ideas have consequences,” which certainly seems to be the case here. The idea that homosexuality is evil and to be avoided has consequences for how parents treat their gay children, and that substantially impacts their children’s likelihood of suicide. If Disco.‘s talk about suicide-prevention mattered for more than raking in cash and taking cheap shots at hardworking scientists, they’d be urging their members and associates to stop demonizing gay people and to adopt a healthier attitude toward the range of human sexualities.
It’s worth noting that Jesse was struggling with the status of gays and lesbians in society. His (still active) MySpace page points out that “Christians, or proponents against gay marriage have lost the gay marriage ban debate. Christians lack a substantial secular reason to block gay marriage. … A good secular argument may exist, but if it does, no one has successfully found it. If proponents against gay marriage do not find a powerful secular argument that proves gay marriage must be banned, they will not maintain the support of the masses.” On another of his blogs, he notes that “I have a lot to say on this issue, and I mean a lot.” We’ll never know what that might have been.
His other writing shows Jesse to have been a sensitive young man, trying to understand how people could be so cruel to one another. His death diminishes us all, as do the deaths of so many veterans and so many gay youths. I don’t know what could have been done to save Mr. Kilgore, but I do know what could prevent more veteran suicides, and the suicides of thousands of gay teens.
For veterans, shorter tours and longer stays stateside are key. Then, better counseling as veterans exit the service and better access to mental health care in and out of uniform. By all accounts, the VA has gotten stingy about what sort of care it provides to veterans, and has been especially unwilling to recognize and treat the full range of mental health problems that can result from the sorts of combat our troops are facing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Indeed, requiring insurance companies to provide access to mental health care would be an exceptionally good idea in general. Depression of the sort that leads to suicide is generally treatable, but the stigma associated with admitting to depression and the cost of treatment keeps people from getting the help they need.
Saying that doesn’t advance any front in the culture wars, and it doesn’t help creationists raise money. But it has the advantage of not predating upon a family’s grief, and if enough people stood together on that front, it might even save some lives.
I will, however, agree with Disco. Inst. boss Bruce Chapman’s call for blood donations. I give every 8 weeks or so, and encourage everyone else to follow suit. Also, be sure to talk to your family about organ donation. There’s a severe shortage for many organs, and even if you’ve checked the box on your driver’s license, doctors can’t harvest your organs unless your next of kin (usually a parent or spouse) signs off. Make sure they know what you want. That conversation can fit nicely into a discussion of New Year’s Resolutions.