Bachmann criticized for silence on suicides in her district

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

An article in the liberal magazine Mother Jones criticizes Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) for her silence on a tragic string of nine suicides over the past two years in her district. The writer argues that Bachmann's refusal to support antibullying legislation in the state in 2006 and the agenda favored by some of her anti-gay allies in Minnesota may have contributed to a harmful environment. And that climate, Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer suggests, could have played a role in the teen deaths in the troubled Anoka-Hennepin school district where Bachmann herself had once attended high school.

The story has quickly traveled around news sites, with The Daily Beast/Newsweek featuring it in an enormous banner headline earlier this morning: "TEEN SUICIDES SWEEP BACHMANN DISTRICT." The Daily Beast write-up of the piece noted that state health and education officials have designated the school district a suicide contagion area.

In July 2009, the district--which has a policy requiring school employees to be "neutral" about homosexuality in front of students--settled with a student for $25,000 who said two teachers had harassed him for being gay. Four of the nine students who died by suicide in the district were believed to have faced harassment stemming either from a gay sexual orientation or from the perception among pers that they might have been gay.

Bachmann refused Mother Jones' request to comment on the deaths, and has not previously offered comment on them. In 2006, she argued against an antibullying bill, saying at the time: "I think for all us our experience in public schools is there have always been bullies, always have been, always will be. I just don't know how we're ever going to get to point of zero tolerance and what does it mean? ... What will be our definition of bullying? Will it get to the point where we are completely stifling free speech and expression? Will it mean that what form of behavior will there be—will we be expecting boys to be girls?"

The GOP  presidential hopeful has said she doesn't think children should learn that homosexuality is "normal" and said in 2004 that being gay is "personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement." Her husband, Marcus Bachmann, has recently come under fire for his therapy clinic that reportedly tries to "cure" gay people and make them straight. He has denied that his clinic engages in that practice.

Experts on the issue note that Minnesota has one of the weakest antibullying laws among U.S. states.

Gay youth suicide rates made national news this year. Activist and sex columnist Dan Savage was motivated by them to create the "It Gets Better" campaign to help gay youth. But Ann Haas, research director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, reminded The Lookout in October that at least 90 percent of suicides are connected to a mental health condition like depression. She said the national media may be "normalizing" suicide by presenting it as a rational response to bullying instead of an act of irrational desperation spurred by mental illness and other factors. Studies have shown that media coverage is one of the biggest factors that can lead to contagion, and that words like "epidemic" and "rash" in headlines can spur more suicides.

"If a story is presented from the viewpoint of the mental disorders that commonly lead to suicide, it's much less likely to have that kind of identification that leads young people to copy the behavior," Haas said.

Dan Reidenberg, the director of the suicide-prevention organization SAVE in Minnesota, told The Daily News that "epidemic" is not the right word for the Anoka-Hennepin suicides. "There was a higher number of suicides in a higher period of time in one area than is normal, but if you look at overall trends, it has gone down. Overall, there was no trending," he said. But he added that anti-gay rhetoric like Bachmann's can "negatively impact" kids who are already at risk.