I was in university when the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign started. At the time, it was a great movement. Droves of people rallied together and made videos to show support for victimized children and youth, who were at risk of suicide due to bullying at home and at school. I’ve never seen any statistics related to the success of that campaign, but I like to think it made a difference to a good many people. The message that “there is a time beyond this when you will thrive, when you will belong, when you will find acceptance,” along with the message “you are not alone,” was powerful. Like all good ideas, however, ‘It Gets Better’ has been used to the point of becoming cliché. What happens next is kids hearing “it gets better” begin to ignore it, left with the unanswered question “what about right now?”
To be clear, I think “it gets better” is a good message. Things certainly got better for me, and the same is true of many people who were bullied in their younger years. It does get better, that’s absolutely true, but for today’s youth, the message provides little consolation. Bullying, hatred, lack of acceptance, and abandonment from family and peers, is ruining lives now. To the 15-year-old who is being denied a happy present, a better future is a hollow promise. To the 12-year-old struggling to cope with a developing identity, the thought of a happy adulthood really isn’t relevant. They live in the now, and their lives are important now. We need to understand this and redefine the message. Now the problem becomes what message should that be?
There is, unfortunately, no easy solution here; at least not one that I can think of. What do you say to a child suffering from so much hurt? We’re used to saying “don’t worry, it gets better,” it comes as naturally as saying “I’m sorry for your loss” at a funeral. Clichés become staples in our cultural dialog, and they can be hard to replace with something relevant when they’re no longer useful. The problem with replacing “it gets better,” I think, is that the issues we use it for are much too large to address during a brief encounter. When a child is feeling conflicted by mixed messages concerning identity, and gender, and feelings of guilt and shame over having these dilemmas, there’s nothing quick we can say to ease their suffering. We got used to saying “it gets better,” but that’s not enough anymore … and maybe it never was.
The point I want to make today is that the time has come for ‘It Gets Better’ to retire. Think of the reasons for recent suicides, and then ask whether “it gets better” might have helped. Rehtaeh Parsons took her own life due to relentless bullying and abuse after she was photographed being raped at a party. Leelah Alchorn took her own life due to systemic religiously motivated abuse at the hands of her parents. The pandemic of suicide among young people under the age of 25 is skyrocketing, and in most cases it’s due to bullying and abuse now. It may get better, but that’s in the future. There is no future for these kids. There is only now, and now feels hopeless to them. So what can we do? Is there a quick message, a mantra of some sort? What do we say to a person seeking a comforting few words? … … beyond “here’s my email if you want to talk,” I don’t know. I speak and write because I feel these issues are much too big for brevity, but sometimes brevity is all we have to work with. What they need is re-assurance, comfort, support, validation, safety, encouragement, and strength, all in one short passage.
I welcome your ideas, your comments, and your thoughts. Lives are being lost, and we have to figure out what to say to those who see no other way to stop the hurt.