Krystal Brennan pulls no punches when she speaks about her mental illness, her bisexuality, the sexual violence she has suffered – and her ongoing struggle with thoughts of suicide.
“In November 2007 I was diagnosed with bipolar and depression,” said Brennan, who turns 18 in July. “It sucks. I’ve done time in a mental institution as well. I used to cut myself. It was really bad. I was at rock bottom for awhile. I don’t even know why I’m here today.”
The Colorado Springs teen-ager is one of nine young people who tell their stories on a new documentary video, You Are Not Alone, which premiered in Colorado Springs last week. The video is a joint project of the Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region and Inside/Out Youth Services, an organization to empower and advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other sexual minority youth. Sponsors hope to use the video in presentations at schools, churches and other venues where teen suicide prevention is taught, or where teen violence is discussed.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among Coloradans ages 10-34, and with an average of 800 Coloradans committing suicide every year, the state had the ninth highest rate of suicide in the country in 2006, the most recent year for which national data is available. Colorado Springs has been especially hard hit by youth suicide.
“In 2009, we lost 10 youth in Colorado Springs to suicide, the youngest being 12,” said Janet Karnes, director of the Suicide Prevention Partnership.
One group that is especially at risk is teens who are anything other than straight in their sexual orientation. Karnes can’t say how many of the recorded teen suicides involved issues of sexuality – sexual status isn’t listed on death certificates – but she feels certain the number is substantial. “Other studies have shown that the LGBT community is at much higher risk of suicide attempts and completions,” she said. “The bullying, the hatred all definitely contribute to this.”
The video project grew out of a suicide prevention training project that Karnes led at Inside/Out a year ago. She learned that while the teens were reluctant to call suicide hotlines, they often did call each other when they were contemplating suicide. “A lot of them were fielding phone calls that normally professionals would handle,” she said. “So we trained them in the warning signs, the risk factors, how to know when they are in over their heads. We taught them things that normally we would teach adults.”
Out of those weekly conversations came the idea to film a video. The Suicide Prevention Partnership obtained an $8,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to do something around teen violence prevention in the LGBT community. The teens who volunteered to participate met weekly for six weeks.
“The first night the kids came, we spent time having them write their stories, what their experiences had been with violence. It turned out to be all different kinds of violence,” said Joy Yeakley, a graduate student in social work who did her internship at SPP. “Some of the kids were part of the LGBT population. Some were straight but had seen gay friends encounter violence. After that first night, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about it, because it’s traumatic. We didn’t want them to have to tell it over and over and over again. Instead we got together to focus on self-care, on holistic health.”
Susan Davis, a holistic health consultant and the video’s director, fed them healthy meals and talked to them about how nutrition affects mood and behavior. She led them through guided imagery, stress reduction techniques and deep breathing exercises, as well as brainstorming about what they’d like the rest of the world to know about them. “We always made sure we closed with guided imagery because after focusing on some pretty hard stuff, a lot of the kids were wound up pretty tight,” Yeakley said. “It was helpful for them to unwind and release some of that stuff.”
Then, at the final meeting, they turned on the cameras and let the teens say whatever they wanted. “They didn’t rehearse,” Karnes said. “They didn’t script it out. It came from their hearts and not their heads. It’s not Hollywood. But that adds to the charm of it. They’re not actors.” The music in the video was written and performed by one of the teens, a transgendered youth, and the only one who chose to remain anonymous in the film.
Yeakley confesses she was shocked by some of the stories the teens told: Rape, family violence, abusive dating relationships, betrayal by friends. “It was pretty intense,” she said. “The more I heard, the more impressed I was with how much courage they had to share their stories.”
Brennan simply wants people to know that she and other sexual minority youth deal with issues just like other people. “We’re all real people. We’re not some made-up TV show,” she said. “Maybe this video will help other people get the help they need and talk to other people.”
Christine Sturgill, 20, another participant in the video, said she’s contemplated suicide, and has lost friends to suicide, but that her sexuality has actually helped her through the rough times.
“I consider myself pansexual,” said Sturgill, who recently left college and now has a sales job in Colorado Springs. “But I just say queer to make it easier. I came out just about a year ago. I was questioning for a couple of years, but it never really affected me in a negative way. So I’m lucky in that sense. Being in the queer community has actually helped me. It’s dealing with the bipolar and the ADHD and the health problems that’s really been hard.”
Brandon Brennan, Krystal’s twin brother, also participated in the making of the video, though he wasn’t present the day of the filming, so is not seen on camera. Like his sister, he too has struggled with thoughts of suicide. His most serious attempt came at 15, soon after he came out as gay.
“It was a hard time for me,” he said. “It was one of those things where people were making fun of me so bad that I thought the best way to handle it was to off myself. The way I got past that was through the help of family and friends. I realized there may not be a lot of people there for me, but there are some people who do matter. I realized they still needed me and I needed them. I realized I was happier living than making everyone else sad around me.”
Davis, the film’s director, said she initially thought it would be a 15-minute production. It wound up at 24 minutes because she just couldn’t cut any of the stories they told. “These kids are brilliant, by the way,” Davis said.
She hopes that the film will be shown to groups of teens, either in church youth groups or in school health classes. “You don’t want to just watch it and leave. There should be some type of processing with that information. Chances are, whoever you’re showing it to can related to at least one of these stories.”
Karnes said she’s already seen the film have an impact. “I showed it to some kids at an alternative school,” she said. “Before class, one boy said he didn’t like gay people. But after he watched the film, he said he couldn’t believe he had something in common with a lesbian. They were both bipolar.”
To get a copy of the video, or to arrange for a suicide prevention presentation, contact Karnes at the Suicide Prevention Partnership, 719-573-7447, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To call the statewide 24-hour hotline for the LGBTQ community: 1-888-557-4441.
For more information
A host of resources, reports and statistic are available at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Office of Suicide Prevention website.
To read the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention Annual Report for 2008-09, click here.
More resources, including best practices in suicide prevention, are available at the Suicide Prevention Resource Center website.
The Second Wind Fund serves Colorado youth at risk for suicide by ensuring they have access to mental health quickly, efficiently, frequently and in their neighborhoods. Click here for more information.