Content warning: This article discusses suicide. If you or a loved one is struggling, support is available at Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Just weeks ago, Leia Pierce was in the car with her nine-year-old son when he became visibly anxious.
Jamel Myles, who started Year Four this month, had decided to tell his mother he was gay.
“He looked so scared when he told me,” Pierce told KDVR. “He was like, ‘Mum, I’m gay.’”
“I thought he was playing, so I looked back because I was driving, and he was all curled up, so scared. And I said, ‘I still love you.'”
During this conversation, Jamel also said he would rather dress like a girl than a boy.
Shortly after opening up to his mother, Jamel was due to return to school after his summer break. He told Pierce he was going to tell people about his sexuality because “he [was] proud of himself”.
Pierce believes bullying from Jamel’s peers contributed to his death.
According to Pierce, Jamel had shared with his older sister that “kids at school had told him to kill himself,” but he didn’t seek help from his mum.
“Four days is all it took at school,” she said. “I could just imagine what they said to him.”
“I’m so upset that he thought that was his option.”
Micah Scott, the CEO of Minus18, a support network for LGBTIQ youth Australia wide, says the most tragic part of the story of Jamel Myles is that his experience of bullying and isolation is “shared by LGBTIQ youth all over the world”.
Less than two years ago, a student from Queensland, Tyrone Unsworth, died by suicide after homophobic bullying.
The day before his death, the 13-year-old confided in his friend about the extent of the bullying he was facing from other students, saying he was scared to return to school.
"He was an absolute mess, crying his eyes out and telling me everyone wants him dead and I said, 'Tyrone, what do you mean everyone wants you dead?'," Gypsie-Lee Edwards Kennard told ABC's 7.30.
"He said, 'The kids at school keep telling me to go kill myself.'"
Research from La Trobe University shows that while the average age young people identify as LGBTIQ is between 11-14 years, many realise their sexuality at 8-10 years of age, like Jamel. When these young people find themselves faced with physical or verbal abuse, it can feel inescapable.
"Experiencing bullying in one location, like school, causes fear of it happening it occurring in other parts of their life, like home or with friends," Scott says.
It's therefore the role of "schools and families... to actively create visible and inclusive spaces that celebrate LGBTIQ identities".
"Don’t wait until someone comes out to do this," Scott says. "LGBTIQ people develop their opinion of how others perceive their identity well before they come out."
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For parents in particular, Scott says families should "talk openly about sexuality and gender, and most of all, tell your [kids] that you will love them, especially if they are LGBTIQ."
"When someone does come out to you, don’t assume their experience has been good or bad, instead, ask them how they’re going, if there’s anything you can do to support them, and affirm to them that you accept and love that part of them."
Critically, schools need to "actively teach about LGBTIQ identities and acceptance in the classroom, developing specific policies that support LGBTIQ students being bullied, and processes to support gender diverse students transition."
Organisations like Minus18 provide training for teachers in these areas.
While stories like those of Jamel and Tyrone necessarily lend themselves to an important discussion about bullying, homophobia and mental health, it's important to acknowledge that the reasons for suicide are often complex. Mindframe, Australia's leading initiative for safe and accurate media reporting about suicide and mental ill-health, are clear in their stance that suicide can rarely be put down to a single factor.
Media reminder of saturated coverage of a single suicide death, in particular young people and simplifying causes to one factor. We also need to be mindful re blame as young communities are also at risk through exposure. Seek comment & info via @headspace_aus & @KidsHelplineAU pic.twitter.com/bjPyh4OPzd
— Mindframe (@MindframeMedia) January 11, 2018
It is, however, our collective responsibility to foster an environment of acceptance when it comes to sexuality.
Even in countries that have marriage equality, homophobic abuse continues to be an ongoing, persistent and dangerous issue, that is significantly linked to self harm and suicide in LGBTIQ people.
While stories like Jamel's are deeply disturbing, and inevitably complex, they warrant our attention and discussion. Because young people like Jamel, Tyrone, and their LGBTIQ peers, deserve far better than the isolating reality they experienced.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help and contact one of the services below.
Online and telephone counselling for LGBTIQ people.
1800 184 527
Crisis and Suicide Support Line.
13 11 14
Telephone Counselling for anyone 5 - 25 years old.
1800 55 1800