Isolation and lack of community connection are among the root causes of suicide identified by the Montgomery County Prevention Coalition, and are feelings often expressed by LGBTQ teens, according to coalition member Devon Stephenson.
He knows those feelings well.
He attempted to end his life in 2018 after struggling with depression and anxiety he said was related to his identity as a gay man.
Even when things seemed to go well for him, the current Wright-State student and Dayton resident said he feared it was all too good to be true.
“I felt that it was all temporary because you are expecting to not be accepted,” he said. “I felt really isolated before, hiding how I truly felt because of my mental illness.”
LGBTQ teens attempted suicide at rates more than four times higher than their peers nationwide last year, according to Greg Ramey, pediatric psychologist and executive director for the Center for Pediatric Mental Health Resources at Dayton Children’s.
Public Health Dayton & Montgomery County’s LGBTQ Community Health Alliance is working to strengthen gay-straight alliance groups at area high schools or create them where they don’t exist. Research shows having a strong alliance group lowers rates of suicide ideation and attempted suicide — even among students who don’t identify as LGBTQ, according to Jerry Mallicoat, LGBTQ health initiatives project manager for the local public health department.
“Having these GSAs really matters because it helps the students feel safe and supported at school,” Mallicoat said. “It just generally gives them a sense of belonging … It helps with all sorts of the emotional and social issues they may be experiencing that can lead to them attempting suicide.”
Stephenson, now 26, is studying to be a social worker. He was active in suicide prevention and mental health work through the Montgomery County Prevention Coalition even before his attempt, which he said shows you can know a lot about this topic and still not be looking out for your own well-being.
He tries to share his story with other young people as a way to show them they are not alone.
“By sharing experiences like that and being open and honest and checking in with your friends you can build empathy, which is really important with people who are considering suicide,” he said.
Teens and adults need to be aware of how social media can warp perceptions of what other people are going through.
“People tend to put the best parts about their lives on social media first,” he said.
No one wants to post that they are having a bad day, every day, because they’d come off as negative and lose friends, Stephenson said.
“Everyone's going through their own things, too,” he said.
After a suicide attempt, he said there can be a difficult period when the initial rush of support subsides.
“It’s a big rally of people and then people go back to normal and that can feel like a big loss,” he said. Survivors need to remember that they can still reach out and fellow survivors can help with that by sharing their stories.
“Your wellness really depends on being able to talk to somebody,” he said, “To understand that there will be dips and ebbs and flows.”
For anyone worried about a friend, he recommends acknowledging their feelings as real and valid.
“After experiencing someone doing that for me, it's easier for me to do that for other people,” Stephenson said. “There's this idea of paying it forward in a way, and I think we could do that as a community by checking in on people, by taking social media with a grain of salt and building empathy as a community. We're in this together.”
Katie Wedell is a member of the Investigation & Community Impact Team for the Dayton Daily News. She's won several awards for investigative reporting from the Associated Press Media Editors of Ohio and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists. Contact her on Facebook and Twitter.