Jamie Hubley’s tragic death this week seems to have struck a deep, emotional chord across Canada and even abroad. As an openly gay teenager in suburban Ottawa, he was hounded and tormented at school by his fellow students because of his mannerisms, his speech, his choice of recreational activities and, above all, his sexual orientation. Bullying is an epidemic, one that affects far more than just LGBT kids—although the incidence of bullying is higher in this demographic, and specific challenges in preventing it are somewhat more complex. Nevertheless, all people, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, should be able to live happy, harassment-free lives. No teenager should be made to fear going to school every day.
As a result of this epidemic, anti-bullying campaigns—particularly those targeting LGBT youth—have grown increasingly visible in the past few years. The It Gets Better campaign, started in the United States in response to a rash of suicides amongst bullied gay teens, has grown into an international movement. Although for some it has, sadly, not been enough, this campaign has likely eased the pain felt by many others. The powerful symbolism of seeing Barack Obama, an African-American who likely suffered racism and bullying in his own youth, rise to become the President of the United States and then speak out publicly against bullying, discrimination and homophobia is deeply moving.
Here in Canada, often considered more socially tolerant than our southern neighbours, the plight of bullied teens is still unacceptably desperate, and the movement to end it is gaining increasing traction. As Jamie Hubley’s suicide made so painfully clear, the problem is just as alive in Canada as anywhere else. People are speaking out, though: even the governing Conservative party, despite a socially conservative ideology that is often at odds with gay rights, arranged for a number of its MPs to speak out against homophobia and all kinds of bullying in a video contributed to the IGB project. While this message is noble, the government needs to take further action and work together with the opposition, and the provinces and territories to bring together a full, national initiative to combat bullying and promote mental health amongst young Canadians.
As the national capital, the city of Ottawa often leads Canada in strong initiatives of social progress. The city works hard at the municipal level to combat social problems. The recent announcement that Ottawa’s Youth Services Bureau, an organization that targets at-risk youth and the issues affecting them, is expanding its mental health initiative—thanks to a generous donation from Bell Canada’s community fund—has been warmly received. It is widely accepted that tackling mental health issues like depression is a cornerstone of preventing suicide amongst youth, and this expansion will have direct benefits for Ottawa’s most vulnerable teens and their families. As psychiatrist Dr. Chris Wilkes was recently quoted in the Vancouver Sun, “there is no health without mental health.” Tackling budding mental health issues while people are still young is crucial to preventing more severe problems in adulthood.
Sadly, this progress comes too late for Jamie. But the massive outpouring of condolences at his family’s loss, and the growing calls for more serious and immediate action on bullying, both homophobic and otherwise, are encouraging. Beyond tackling what’s happening in school hallways, society as a whole needs to address the underlying problems that lead so many kids into the downward spiral of depression. Although not enough was done in time to save Jamie, perhaps the bullied teens that will follow will receive the support, encouragement and social action needed to prevent them from having to live painful, all-to-short lives. It won’t be enough to just tell these kids it gets better—we’re going to need to work harder to make it better for them, right now.