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.
The Perils of Freshman Year
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.
The brains of people in late adolescence still are developing, making some unusually sensitive to any assault on their psyches.
"They are very prone to take things to an extreme," Lieberman said. "So what may be an insult or a setback to an adult, to an adolescent is the end of the world."
They're also more impulsive at this time of life, which can magnify the potential for self-harm.
"Something happens, they've got to take care of it right away. They can't sit with it or try to work through it or not react to it," Lieberman pointed out. "We know from tons and tons of research on suicide that the critical element, why people who have been depressed for years, or who have some difficulty... at some point commit suicide, has to do with impulsivity."
In Clementi's case, it's possible no one saw signs of the decision to end his life. According to the Web site Gawker, he posted comments to a gay website the morning of his death in which he sounded calm and collected and indicated he'd written to his resident advisor about the incident.
Being 'Outed' to the World
Nevertheless, the impact of being surreptitiously filmed in a sexual situation is devastating -- regardless of whether the victim is in late adolescence, noted Gershen Kaufman, an emeritus psychology professor at Michigan State University and author of the 1996 book "The Psychology of Shame."
"Anybody could be potentially overwhelmed by the experience to the point of thinking that the only alternative is suicide," Kaufman said.
"This is more like a grown-up version of bullying," said Norma P. Simon, a retired psychologist in Pelham, N.Y. "I've had people say it feels like being raped, or being brutalized. It's abuse."
But a major difference in the Rutgers episode is that what in past years might have been akin to a schoolyard humiliation, confined in time and place, can become universally available to others in the Internet age.
The combination of the Internet and web cams makes possible things "that hadn't been possible before," Kaufman said. "In the past it would have been something dumb and stupid that would have been annoying and embarrassing, but not mortifying to this degree."
The impact of the incident may have been made worse by that Clementi was reportedly captured in a romantic encounter with another young man. Public revelation of a person's sexuality can be tremendously humiliating.
"The perfect analogy in the straight world is when the police used to round up men who frequented prostitutes and publicly paraded them and had the newspaper run their pictures," Kaufman said. "Public humiliation is a profound humiliation, and to have it broadcast on the Internet magnifies the experience because it can't be escaped."
When a Prank Goes Too Far
Clementi's roommate, Ravi, and another Rutgers student, Molly Wei, have each been charged with two counts of invasion of privacy.
"They probably thought it was a prank," said Kaufman. "They're going to have to live with the fact that they directly caused the death of another human being. That's going to be on their consciences for the rest of their lives."
Lieberman said their behavior was sadistic and self-indulgent, yet characteristic of people who haven't yet matured.
"It really depends on their own ... psychological makeup," Lieberman said. "In the case of most healthy, reasonably well-adjusted people, they'll feel tremendous guilt. The kind of healthy response to that guilt is redemption and trying to make amends: being apologetic and trying to do something with their lives."
However, if they're narcissistic or sociopathic without a well-formed conscience, he predicted they could try to avoid the consequences "by averting blame and minimizing their role in doing this."
Lieberman predicted they would be vilified on campus to some degree. Legally speaking, their futures remain uncertain. Under New Jersey's invasion of privacy statutes, they could face up to five years in prison for the third-degree crime of transmitting or distributing images depicting sexual contact without a person's consent.
"If they end up in a prison, their whole life is turned around in a way they hadn't expected," said Simon, former head of mental health services at Queens College in New York City. "It's very sad because I'm sure they hadn't given any thought... to the devastating consequences of what they consider probably to be a prank."