Written by Josh Suttill
Do you ever wonder if one sentence could have saved somebody’s life?
Suicide can often leave you looking back at the past and wondering what you could have said, or done, differently to a loved one. A partner, a family member, a friend. Or sometimes even a stranger.
In my case, it’s somebody I went to school with. I only ever had a few interactions with him, but I’ve always had a lingering regret ever since I found out that he took his own life aged just 17.
He came out as gay when he was 14-years-old. He was confident beyond his years and speaking now as an out bisexual man, it’s impressive and admirable how much confidence he had to come out at such a young age – even though I couldn’t appreciate that at the time. At that point, I wasn’t even sure of my own sexuality, let alone confident enough to share it with everybody.
He received awful abuse as the only out gay guy in our school year because it was something that the other students wholly defined him as. As if it was the only thing worth knowing about him, and as if the only reason people ever needed to speak to him was to insult him.
I was on the other half of the year, so I rarely saw him, but the only things I knew were of homophobic and bigoted abuse directed towards him, both to his face and behind his back. Rumours and horrible stories about him were circulated, and it’s difficult to remember another student receiving that level of abuse.
Despite the abuse, he always seemed confident and happy and I wish I’d spoken to him properly. I know he had a good few friends who were supportive, but he faced so much abuse, it’s unsurprising that he moved schools for sixth-form – and to a school at the other end of the country.
Just over one year later, he took his own life.
It was all over the local news and there was a small speech in the morning assembly at school. I can’t remember the exact teacher who gave the speech, just that the words were generic, empty and not befitting of such a proud and bright young man.
The issues surrounding his suicide were not dealt with. There seemed to be a widespread failure to see that the bullying in the school had played its part in the boy’s decision. He’d faced similar abuse at his new school, but he’d faced plenty at our school.
It’s important not to play the blame game or point fingers after suicide. But quite simply, our school’s and the other school’s teachers and its pupils had failed a young 17-year-old boy ever since he’d come out. All the staff knew he was gay and the abuse wasn’t hidden, the staff knew why it was happening, and they let it.
I’m sure some were supportive, some intervened, some offered support. Plenty of people though, staff and pupils alike, simply watched as a young boy faced unthinkable hatred. Myself included.
I wonder if I could have said something. Did I let things slide? Did I ever challenge any homophobia directed towards him or anybody else? Is my memory protecting me by answering that question with ‘I never saw any’?
If I could have just told him how he wasn’t alone, and how he’d actually inspired me to accept and love who I was before eventually coming out shortly before my 18th birthday. Maybe if he knew that, he wouldn’t have felt like he had to take his own life.
Maybe it would have made zero difference. I’ll never know.
All I can do – and have tried to do since I processed everything – is never stand for any kind of abuse directed towards myself, a friend, a family member, or sometimes – and this is arguably the hardest and most important – a stranger. Somebody I barely know. Somebody I walk past in the street or see in a lecture or a seminar, somebody I sit near in the library.
Not everybody has somebody to stand up for them, and not everybody can always stand up for themselves. Maybe they can after the first comment, but the 45th time, the 200th time, nobody can deal with that by themselves. Sometimes you have to stand up for somebody you don’t even know and say no. Say that you won’t let them bring somebody down today, tell them they can’t terrorise somebody simply because of who they love or the colour of their skin or what gender they feel most comfortable identifying as.
Too many young people (and those of all ages) are taking their own lives, so if you do one thing, even though LGBT+ History Month is over and the mainstream media has moved on, tell your friends – LGBT+ or otherwise – something positive. Maybe it’s how they inspire you or thank them again if they’ve helped you through a difficult time in the past, or just tell them that they look really beautiful today.
And if you see abuse or bullying or just somebody in need – whether that be your closest friend or a complete stranger. Speak to them. Help them or get them the help they need.
Take a stand for what is right, not what is easy.
Maybe it doesn’t work or maybe, just maybe, it might save another young person’s life.
Take care and look out for each other, because if the last 12 months have shown anything, it’s that any act of kindness to a friend or a stranger can go a really long way.
You can find Josh Suttill on instagram @josh_suttill.
Image by Yoav Hornung, from Unsplash.