It was the end of a long day in August 2012 when Linda McNeil called to talk to the 17-year-old whose behavior had seemed a little off at a recent get-together.
Linda, who leads one of Side by Side’s (formerly ROSMY’s) support groups for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, was trained to reach out whenever a young person showed any atypical behavior. She knew the young man – we’ll call him Mark – was feeling isolated in his rural high school and dreading the start of the school year. What she didn’t know was that earlier in the week a group of bullies had chased the teen and threatened him while yelling slurs.
Shaken by the incident, Mark’s depression had quickly turned into thoughts of suicide, until he received Linda’s message expressing concern. He now credits her message with saving his life.
The positive ending to Mark’s story is a perfect example of how caring adults can have a huge impact on a young person’s life. Unfortunately, that first part of Mark’s story – the darker side – is not unique. Studies show that LGBTQ teens are twice as likely to be injured with a weapon and four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. These statistics illustrate the risks that LGBTQ youth still face,
even as society grows more accepting.
Side by Side, formerly known as ROSMY for the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth, was established in 1991 and provides a lifeline for LGBTQ youth ages eleven to twenty in Richmond and Charlottesville. The organization offers a variety of weekly youth support groups, a leadership program, drop-in hours at the youth center, 24/7 hotline, and social activities like the annual prom. The youth center houses programs for parents, including Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG for short. Throughout Central Virginia, Side by Side also provides training for teachers, social workers, counselors, and other youth workers on how to address the unique needs of LGBTQ youth.
Stories like Mark’s led the team at Side by Side to create a suicide prevention initiative last year with funding from the Richmond Memorial Health Foundation. Side by Side staff and volunteers received special training in suicide prevention. Additionally, Side by Side youth are taught to use coping skills to recognize and process their thoughts of depression, while learning to recognize the signs of risk in others.
As Side by Side executive director, Beth Panilaitis explains, “Developing quality peer support for this age group is critical, because there are so many youth who will talk to their friends before they ever approach an adult. We knew that effective and successful first aid for our youth required that we teach these kids to help each other when they think that a friend is considering suicide. ”
According to Panilaitis, who has been with Side by Side since 2010, the second part of the nonprofit’s initiative focuses on increasing the number of trained adults in Central Virginia who are prepared and willing to do what Linda did for Mark. Whether it’s peers or adults who initiate the intervention, suicide prevention starts with recognizing the warning signs.
Through this important work, Side by Side hopes to build a safety net for LGBTQ youth, made up of peers and adults across the community. “Through education and support, we have an opportunity for the Greater Richmond area to serve as a model for ensuring that LGBTQ youth grow up healthy and safe,” says Panilaitis. “But, because teen suicide is a community-wide issue, it will take everyone. Whether you are a teacher, a clinician, or a concerned parent, anyone who has relationships with youth can be a part of this mission.”