A mother whose son took his own life after bullies outed him online is calling for action on the “epidemic” of LGBT+ bullying.
Tyler Clementi, 18, tragically died in 2010. He was driven to suicide when his college roommate covertly filmed him kissing another man and then livestreamed it online.
His death brought national attention to cyberbullying and the struggles of LGBT+ youth. Tyler’s parents, Jane and Joseph Clementi, later established the Tyler Clementi Foundation in his memory.
The organisation aims to end online and offline bullying with a particular focus on young LGBT+ people, who are disproportionately affected by mental health issues.
Speaking to PinkNews ahead of World Mental Health Day, Jane Clementi explained the need for greater insight into the causes and effects of online abuse.
“I believe bullying is a true mental health crisis,” she said. “It is a mental health incident whether you’re on the victim’s side or the bully’s side, because oftentimes we find that it is hurt people who hurt other people. And it also affects everyone who’s seeing that kind of behaviour.”
She regrets that the landscape of online bullying hasn’t changed much in the wake of her son’s death, explaining that although more conversations are being had around the subject, the culture simply hasn’t shifted fast enough.
“It’s an epidemic, in my opinion, and unfortunately I see it even through celebrities who are using social media platforms in harmful ways to attack people’s characters as opposed to having civil, respectful conversations.
“Technology is a great thing but we need to teach people how to use it as the good tool it is, and not to allow people to weaponise it, to harm others, like they did with Tyler and so many others still to this day.”
Recent studies indicate that LGBT+ bullying is the most prevalent type of bullying and is more common than incidents relating to racism, sexism or religion. Clementi believes tackling this form of abuse is key to reducing bullying rates overall.
“Our organisation speaks to all types of bullying, but near and dear to me is Tyler’s story and I do believe in my heart that Tyler was targeted because of his sexual orientation,” she said.
“There is research that shows if there is a gay-straight alliance in schools, the statistics are lower for bullying and suicide of all people, the overall environment is better, whether you’re gay or straight.
“So I think we can extrapolate from that research. If we can get rid of LGBT+ bullying, I think there will be much less bullying overall.”
She drew parallels between her son and Channing Smith, a 16-year-old from Tennessee who took his own life last month after classmates outed him on Snapchat and Instagram.
“It is tragic, and it’s not [just] the fact that somebody could out someone like that, it’s that the resources aren’t there. No one intervened and stepped in in that situation,” she said.
“That’s why one of [the Foundation’s] biggest programmes is about getting somebody into that space, to say, ‘I’m here for you,’ reach out to the person being targeted and interrupt what’s happening, or if nothing else, report it.”
LGBT+ people are under the spotlight in the US this week as the Supreme Court heard arguments for and against legal protections for LGBT+ people in employment settings.
It’s a critical time for LGBT+ youth, whose mental health is directly affected by such high-profile cases. Clementi pointed to research indicating a significant drop in LGBT+ suicides in the six months after marriage equality was passed in the US.
“Knowing there are positive role models out there, that there is a positive future for them, it changes someone’s whole mindset and can be so, so supportive,” she said, urging adults to moderate their language when discussing the case in front of young people who may not have come out yet.
To any young LGBT+ person currently struggling with their mental health, she had the following message.
“You are perfect, and you might not feel it right now but there is a world out there that wants to celebrate you.
“I don’t want to say it’s going to get better today or tomorrow, because if you are aged 10 or 12 and are in an unsupportive school or home, it may get worse in the next few steps.
“But look broader. There are people and places you can go to for support, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open. It will get better. We are on an upswing – percentage-wise, more people now are welcoming and celebrating varieties and differences in everything that we are.
“Just hold on. Don’t make rash, quick decisions that can’t be changed.”
If you are in the US and are having suicidal thoughts, suffering from anxiety or depression, or just want to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255 or speak. If you are in the UK, you can contact the Samaritans on 116 123.