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Dan Savage and Terry Miller in Vienna

“Stop! …Be Smart! You only live once!” – Mozart, The Magic Flute.

In September 2010, a teenage boy who was bullied at school for being homosexual took his own life. Amidst inconceivably cruel messages of continued bullying and belated outreaches of sorrow and understanding, a stranger wrote on his memorable page, “I wish I would have known you so I could have told you: It gets better, RIP.” Struck by the obvious desperation of this young man, US advice columnist, podcaster and gay rights activist, Dan Savage, started the It Gets Better Project with his partner, Terry Miller, to bring messages of encouragement directly to the youth at risk through internet videos of those who have gone through similar situations while growing up but persevered.

Yesterday evening, the US embassy, It Gets Better Austria (Es wird Besser, Österreich) along with the Vienna Anti-discrimination for Same Sex and Transgender People held a panel discussion at the Vienna Amerikahaus entitled, “Building Bridges to Make it Better.” Dan and Terry sat on the panel and shared their own experiences working as activists to help young people at risk.

Dr. Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, of the University of Vienna Medical School, and an expert on suicide, talked extensively about the challenges of the media in dealing with these heartbreaking incidents. Contrary to reports about other diseases such as heart disease,  sensational reporting on teen suicides can actually cause an increase in suicides and suicidality. Professionals have dubbed this phenomena the Werther Effect, after the lovelorn protagonist in Goethe’s 1774 novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

Werther loves Lotte but she is committed to Albert. Unable to bear the pain of such all-consuming passion unrealized, the young man commits suicide.  The book is believed to have caused young men throughout Europe to not only emulate Werther in they way they dressed but also his desperate end. The book is believed to have triggered a chain of the first recorded “copycat” suicides.

To combat this negative trend, the author Christoph Nicolai published a satiric version of the novel, in which Albert gets wind of the young man’s intentions and fills Werther’s pistol with chicken blood. The hero’s suicide attempt fails and he ends up getting over Lotte and living a happy and productive life. Goethe, was not amused, but for literary reasons, not social. Due to the seemingly contagious effect of suicides, medical professionals work together with press organizations to draft media recommendations on best practice standards for suicide reporting. Studies suggest that there is a right way to approach the subject to achieve the “Papageno Effect.”

In Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute”, the bird catcher, Papageno, in utter despair from losing his love, Papagena, decides to hang himself. He chooses his tree and bids the deceitful world farewell. But then he sings, “If anyone wants to love or pity me before I hang myself, just call out to me, yes or no.” Silence. Nevertheless, he looks and waits, and then decides to count to three, just in case. One. Looks around. Two. Looks around. Three. Looks around. Then so be it. And at that moment, three youths rush onto stage calling, “Stop, Papageno. Be smart! You only live once …” But he argues and they tell him to ring his bell. Lo and Behold, his lady appears and happiness ensues. In other words, sometimes it just takes an interruption to the darkness – a sign of hope — encouraging words that things will get better. And eventually, they do.

Terry Miller and Dan Savage of It Gets Better

Terry Miller and Dan Savage in Vienna, Austria, May 2015 talking about their initiative, “It Gets Better”

Dan and Terry’s heart-felt talk was incredibly sincere. Terry talked about his return to his old high school – a place he associated with painful memories of bullying and torment. But his school had evolved and during the return visit, he received a public apology from the director for how he had been treated so many years before.

Nothing can undo the pain and scars that bullying can inflict on a young person, but it’s good to know that there’s hope. And people who’ve also ventured through the dark tunnel to discover that there is light on the opposite side. Too many young people in this world are denied the unconditional love they deserve and it’s good to know there’s a place they can go to get the encouragement to Stop! and Be smart! Because it gets better.

The It Gets Better Project website has more than 50,000 user-created videos which have been viewed more than 50 millions times. Check it out. It’s a great initiative.

Read more:

Austrian newspaper, der Standard, article entitled, “Journalisten können helfen, Suizide zu verhindern,” Oliver, Mark, 19 December 2011, about how journalist can help prevent suicide.

Links to the Austrian initiatives:
Es wird Besser, Österreich

Wiener Antidiskriminierungsstelle für gleichgeschlechtliche und transgender Lebensweisen (WASt)