Double suicide in western Minnesota puts bullying back in spotlight

Two 14-year old girls committed suicide last week in Marshall, Minn., and the evidence suggests they'd been bullied. Relatives of  Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz told Meredith Viera of the TODAY Show that the girls may have been more than just friends. Fentress had hyphenated her last name on Facebook to include Moravetz's last name, and Fentress had been expelled from school recently for defending Paige in a fight. The pair's deaths add to a growing list of suicides in Minnesota and around the country where bullying is suspected to have played a factor.

In Thursday's TODAY Show interview, both girls' families said they suspected that bullying may have been a factor, including bullying about weight issues. The families also said they suspected that Paige and Haylee may have had a romantic relationship and that ostracization may have played a role in their suicide pact.

Reports of bullying-related suicides have been increasing in Minnesota and nationally. In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, north of Minneapolis, a fierce debate continues to rage between the parents of LGBT students and religious right-affiliated parents over how to handle LGBT issues in the district following a series of suicides where anti-LGBT bullying was suspected. Tammy Aaberg, the mother of Justin Aaberg, who took his own life last summer in Anoka, has been speaking out against anti-LGBT bullying and pushing for safe school programs locally and nationally.

And, an gay Alexandria teen took his own life earlier this year. Friends in that school district have cited bullying as a possible factor.

A study released last week found that teen suicides are more likely in conservative areas and that gay and lesbian teens are more likely to have attempted suicide. The research of Dr. Mark Hatzenbuehler, Ph.D., Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York, evaluated different communities on "the proportion of same-sex couples, the proportion of registered Democrats, the presence of gay-straight alliances in schools, and nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies in schools school policies that specifically protected lesbian, gay, and bisexual students."

The results showed that gay students in more tolerant areas were less likely to attempt suicide. The study controlled for risk factors that might contribute to suicide attempts, including symptoms of depression, excessive use of alcohol, physical abuse by adults and peer victimization or bullying.

"This study suggests that we can reduce suicide attempts among LBG youth by improving the social environment and really challenges the myth that there is something inherent in being gay that puts gay youth at risk of attempting suicide. Instead, what we've shown is that the social environment strongly influences the prevalence of suicide attempts," Hatzenbuehler told Medscape Medical News.

There's no indication that Marshall's schools are unsafe for LGBT students or that the community is not tolerant of LGBT people. The study only focused on the state of Oregon.

Cornell University psychologist Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams told the Daily Mail that the message shouldn't be that gay and lesbian youth are more likely to be suicidal but that society should look at more protections for young people.

He said "we have given them the message that they are suicidal" and instead society should "look (at) what kind of abilities you're squashing by not having protection of gay kids."