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Task force talks suicide prevention
by Joseph Erbentraut

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As LGBT people worldwide continue to mourn the recent suicides of youths who were bullied, the Chicago Task Force on LGBT Substance Use & Abuse held an emergency meeting Oct. 13. The meeting's intention, task force co-chair Ed Negron said, was to address the recent deaths and strategize efforts to help prevent similar tragedies for youth here.

"We need to do something here in Chicago," Negron said as he began the meeting at the city's Department of Public Health office. " [ We need to ] come up with some kind of ways or awareness to let youth know there is support out there."

Advocates for LGBTQ youth present at the meeting differed in their suggestions for preventative action on youth suicide, but agreed on at least one conclusion to a complicated issue: In the words of fellow task force co-chair Pamela McCann: "We have our work cut out for ourselves" in keeping youth healthy, happy and safe from harassment.

As Windy City Times reported in its Oct. 6 issue, at least two youth as young as 11 years old reportedly took their lives for reasons related to anti-gay bullying in Chicago area schools in 2009.

Data reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health earlier this year suggests that number represents only a small slice of the issue's actual death toll: Among respondents to the department's Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 13.5 percent of all Illinois high school students reported having suicidal thoughts, while 6.5 percent had attempted suicide in the last year.

Those numbers were much higher for LGB students, 54.3 percent of whom experienced suicidal thoughts, one-third of whom attempted to take their own lives. The number of suicide attempts among Illinois youth—both LGB and heterosexual—have been on the rise in recent years.

John Codd, a counselor with Alternatives, Inc., an Uptown-based youth and family service agency, said the increased visibility of out LGBT people in culture and mainstream media has contributed to increased targeting of LGBTQ youth. In concert with the growing influence of social networking, he said youth are becoming more isolated—rather than connected—and that homophobic rhetoric in the political sphere has trickled down to youth themselves.

"If you preach that gay and lesbian people are less than or broken and that associating with them is bad for you, then they [ youth ] get that it's fair game," Codd said. "Adults and politicians are modeling this behavior ... and I think it's gotten worse over the past 10 years."

One strategy, Codd proposed, is to continue the push for messages of inclusiveness of LGBT youth in school settings, though he acknowledged groups—such as American Family Association—opposing efforts like LGBT-inclusive bullying programs and gay-straight alliances maintain a powerful influence on many school boards.

Outside of schools, advocates said that programs offered by organizations such as the Broadway Youth Center or Center on Halsted often come with a stigma, which can often dissuade at-risk youth from utilizing LGBT-centric programs' services. The fear of being "caught" in Lakeview that some youth feel is real, and further complicates advocates' efforts to enact change.

"They think they don't want to be around 'those kind of people' or aren't ready to be a part of the GLBT community, but they need someone to talk to," Negron added.

Anne Parry, director of the Chicago Department of Public Health's Office of Violence Prevention, noted that, for many youth, the presence of "one significant, caring, positive adult" is a major factor in their resilience to harassment. When that support may not be found in a youth's immediate surroundings, campaigns like Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project can have a pronounced impact.

Anthony Fleming, the Chicago organizer for the Trevor Project, also spoke at the meeting. Fleming addressed the ways in which the community can help support the project's expansion, including getting involved with the project's Chicago Ambassador's Council.

At press time, the task force's next meeting on LGBTQ youth suicide prevention had not yet been announced.

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