When Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death last week from the George Washington Bridge, he may have been reacting to a constellation of factors related to sexuality, public bullying and humiliation that put adolescents and young adults at a particularly high risk for suicide, mental health experts said.
Clementi, a shy, quiet 18-year-old and talented violinist who grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., is believed to have been caught on camera during an intimate encounter with a young man in his dorm room. His roommate, 18-year-old Dharun Ravi, allegedly streamed video of the two on the Internet and announced his alleged surreptitious behavior on the social networking site Twitter.
Three days later, Clementi posted a short farewell message on his Facebook page: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry." His family subsequently confirmed the suicide.
According to the 2005 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey, teens who identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, or who report having any same-sex sexual contact, are four times more likely to have attempted suicide in the past year than their straight classmates. And the 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) shows that nine out of 10 lesbian, bisexual and transgender middle and high school students report having been harassed.
The extent to which the public revelations of Clementi's sexual encounter influenced his decision to take his own life remains to be fully understood. But his death comes on the heels of several recently publicized suicides among younger gay teens who were bullied and humiliated at school:
Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from Tehachapi, Calif., hanged himself from a tree in his backyard. Authorities say other teens had taunted the boy for being gay. He died Tuesday afternoon after nine days on life support.
Asher Brown, 13, an eighth-grader in Houston, fatally shot himself in the head last week after enduring what his mother and stepfather said was constant harassment from four other students at his school for being gay.
Billy (William) Lucas, 15, a student at Greensburg Community High School in Greensburg, Ind., was found dead after he reportedly hanged himself in a barn at his grandmother's home last Thursday evening. Friends said the torment that Lucas endured included taunts that questioned his sexual orientation.
Mental health experts say college is a time when many young people experiment sexually, and dormitory living means the experimentation is carried out with little privacy. Freshman year, in particular, is the perfect pressure cooker, a time in which changes on every front can be de-stabilizing to students who thrived on the familiar in high school. Young men and women face the scrutiny and judgments of roommates and dorm mates, who may be intolerant or insensitive.
Moreover, late adolescence is a high-risk time for the onset of the major psychiatric conditions -- psychosis, mood disorders, substance abuse, trauma and stress, Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, professor and chairman of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York said in an interview today.
"We've known that because we see increasing numbers of freshmen who are taking psychotropic drugs, are seeking mental health care student services, and we see the increasing rates of suicidal events," Lieberman said.