You may have recently read about the death of Nigel Shelby.
Nigel was a student at Huntsville High School in Huntsville, Alabama. He was 15 when he died. He reportedly took his own life after being targeted by homophobic bullying. The sad reality is that Nigel is one of many young people who have lost their life to self-harm. He wasn’t the first, and we have to expect and accept that he won’t be the last.
Whatever your sexuality, your teenage years can be some of your most vulnerable points in your life. Your body is going through a lot of changes, you’re trying to figure out who you are and where you fit into things, and you’re beginning to navigate that difficult transition from child to adult.
There is something in human nature that seems to instinctively lead us to identify and exploit weaknesses in each other. Schoolkids seem to have a natural talent for this. Surviving school becomes a blood-sport of winners and losers. It’s real-time Lord of the Flies – and it can sometimes feel as if you’re the only one who never gets to hold the conch shell.
How do we help young queer kids make it through school?
The obvious solution is that we eliminate homophobia. Kids are learning homophobia from somewhere, If being queer wasn’t seen as some sort of weakness, then queer kids will be less vulnerable to being bullied. While eliminating homophobia is obviously something we should continue to strive for, our experience to date tells us that this is a slow and frustrating process. While we continue to work on eliminating homophobia we need to concurrently be able to offer other solutions for our young people.
It Gets Better is a powerful message – it’s the bedrock of an influential campaign founded by Dan Savage and Terry Miller. In simple terms, we try and tell young people to hang in there, that as you get older things will get easier, things will get better. Most older LGBTQ people will tell you that this is true – sure, there’s some swings and roundabouts, but as you get older, you find your place in the world and you can get some perspective on the troubles of your younger years. This is a message that will resonate with some young people, although for others I imagine that it will sound like a hollow promise. When you’re in your teens, your life generally revolves around what’s happening at school and on social media. Your day-to-day life may not necessarily be filled with Riverdale-esque drama, but it can sometimes feel like that. Having some old queer tell you not to worry what everyone at school is saying about you will probably seem laughable.
While there’s been lots of studies about human behaviour and sexuality, it’s clear that we’ve got a lot more to learn about what makes us queer and how that shapes and influences our experience of life.
It’s well-reported that LGBTQ people struggle with higher rates of mental health issues than straight people. That’s not because we’re somehow ‘weaker’ than anyone else, but it’s probably caused by what’s termed Minority Stress Syndrome. Wherever we are in the world, queer people are always in the minority. Being in a minority brings with it inherent subliminal levels of stress, anxiety, and a feeling of vulnerability.
The flip-side of the Minority Stress Syndrome scenario is that there is also research emerging that indicates that LGBTQ people are remarkably resilient. We have to be. We get pushed and tested a lot. We get bullied. As long as we can hang on and make it through the difficult periods in our life, we’re pretty unstoppable.
Harness your resilience
If you’re going through a rough patch, and you’re not sure where to turn to for help and advice, take a moment and tap into your resilience.
What’s your sense of purpose? Figure out what your passion is – what’s going to make you get out of bed each day. Set yourself some goals and objectives.
Remember what you’re good at: It’s all too easy to focus on all the negative stuff going on, and negative feelings about yourself. Look in the mirror and remind yourself about the good things you’ve got going on.
Draw on your network: If you’re feeling down, reach out to the people who care about you. Meet a friend for a coffee, or have an online chat with someone who makes you laugh. Connect with others.
Try something new: If you’re not feeling great, it could be because something has ended, or maybe you’re not making any progress, or you feel like you’ve hit a dead-end. Make some changes. Try doing something different. Find a new project or get a fresh perspective.
Seize the day: When you’re feeling as if everything is going against you, it can be easy to slip into a negative mindset. Try and flip that around and be a glass half-full kind of person. If you approach the day with some positive energy and a can-do attitude, you’ll find ways to push through anything standing in your way. Be a problem-solver.
Take a bit of me-time: Go to the gym. Get a haircut. Take some time out and have a bath and a face-mask. Go to a movie. Put your problems to one side for a while and focus on a bit of self-indulgence to make yourself feel good.
Time for action: Take charge of the situation. If you’ve got a problem or something that’s worrying you or upsetting you, what action are you going to take to resolve it? Brainstorm the problem. Get some help and advice. Figure out three things you can do that might help you move forward – put that plan into action.