When the researchers Carl Hanson and Quinn Snell set out to identify the top 10 factors that predicted suicidal thoughts and behavior in 179,000 Utah high school students, they had no preconceived notions. Instead, they fed years worth of survey responses from those teens, who'd answered questions about things like school involvement, family life, and mental health, into 100 different machine learning models, eager to let the data lead them to a conclusion.
What the Brigham Young University professors learned should spark a serious conversation about why children and teenagers need digital and real-life safe spaces free from bullying, discrimination, and violence. Critics of the concept of safe spaces — settings designed to minimize fear and harm while fostering trust and confidence — lambast it as a way for youth to insulate themselves from contrary ideas and objectionable behavior. But for young people, safe spaces can offer desperately needed acceptance, inclusion, and love.
To suggest that such a thing is vital, however, is to invite an internet or cable television pile-on of bad faith arguments about how teens and young adults are soft "snowflakes" who can't bear the slightest challenge to their worldview. The notion of a safe space has become so warped by partisan and ideological attacks from the center and right that it's become a slur, punchline, or straw man depending on the aims of the person wielding the phrase.
Hanson and Snell's findings, published recently in PLOs ONE, tell a vastly different story about the significance of safe spaces for teens. The researchers and their co-authors found that being threatened or harassed by peers over the internet, or being picked on or bullied by a student at school were by far the top two predictors for experiencing suicidal thoughts and behavior. Classroom and family environments mattered, too. At home, serious family arguments, disagreements about the same issues over time, and exposure to insults and shouting were among the top 10 predictors, along with feeling unsafe at school, or hating school.
Yet when campus activists who are already aware of this reality push for safe spaces at home and in public, they frequently become targets of critics who depict them as cartoon villains. The debate then focuses on trigger warnings or contested speech, a dynamic that overshadows the real consequences of indifference or cruelty. Research, however, powerfully illuminates the connection between certain negative experiences and poorer mental health for youth. When such data tells us that young people are commonly subjected to intolerable pain at school, online, in public, or at home, and that their well-being appears to suffer as a result, it's harder to dismiss safe spaces as the dysfunction of coddled or incurious youth.
A recent Pediatrics study, for example, found that when young people transitioning into adulthood frequently experienced discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, physical appearance, or age, they were more likely to report psychological distress and mental illness. When researchers for The Trevor Project polled transgender and nonbinary youth about how peers and adults (including family members and school and healthcare professionals) treated them, they found an association between greater acceptance and significantly reduced likelihood of suicide attempts.
The researchers connecting these dots, however, aren't as loud as those who criticize efforts to design more accepting, inclusive spaces. These initiatives include diversity, equity, and inclusion training; candid and accurate education about racism in America; and, social-emotional learning that aims to help children identify and express their feelings while creating a supportive classroom environment. Some detractors decry such initiatives as indoctrination or threats to free speech and intellectual inquiry. While people have every right to question how these efforts unfold in the classroom or workplace, critics also tend to display a fundamental lack of curiosity about the pain that young people experience in unwelcoming or hostile environments. They often seem to lack any interest in addressing that problem, or in the difficult work of confronting legacies of injustice.
Unlike the generations that came before, teens and young adults are less willing to accept suffering as inevitable.
If youth seem "over sensitive," it's worth considering that they bear scars that adults who see themselves as "tougher" have ignored, concealed, or never endured. Research tells us that traumatic childhood experiences like physical abuse, emotional neglect, and household violence are more common than older adults might admit. The difference today is that, unlike the generations that came before, teens and young adults are less willing to accept such suffering as inevitable.
Yet some quarters of America insist on inflicting it. Politicians, for instance, have gone out of their way to deny transgender youth safe spaces. By passing laws that prevent transgender children from receiving affirming medical care or ban them from participating in school sports, they've told these kids they don't belong and given cover to those who bully, harass, or exclude them.
Dr. Myeshia Price, senior research scientist for The Trevor Project, said in an email that "the term 'safe spaces' should not be controversial" given the reality that transgender youth face.
"Not only do we need to create spaces that shield trans young people from anti-trans bullying and violence, but also to support their mental health and well-being and empower them to express themselves and reach their full potential," she wrote.
The simple acts of using the correct names and pronouns for trans and nonbinary youth, actively listening, and practicing empathy can help create the safe spaces that they desperately need. This is the least a caring adult can do for a vulnerable child.
Those who still remain skeptical of safe spaces should reflect on the fate of Isabella "Izzy" Faith Tichenor, a 10-year-old from Utah who took her life earlier this month.
Izzy, who was Black and had autism, said classmates teased and bullied her relentlessly. She suspected her teacher didn't like her. Her mother, Brittany Tichenor, told the press that when she reported Izzy's accounts of bullying to the school's administration, nothing was done. The district said it's investigating all allegations.
In October, prior to Izzy's suicide, the Department of Justice issued a settlement with the district where Izzy attended school, following a civil rights investigation. It discovered "serious and widespread" harassment of Black and Asian-American students that included uses of the N-word, derogatory racial comments, and physical assaults.
"She was a happy little girl. But as we all know, even as adults, you know there are some voices that rang higher."
"The department concluded that for years, [the district's] ineffective response left students vulnerable to continued harassment and that students believed the district condoned the behavior," said a recent statement from the Department of Justice. The district is now required to implement student, staff, and parent training and education on identifying and preventing racial discrimination; inform students and parents how they can report harassment and discrimination; and train staff how to recognize and respond to such complaints, among other reforms. Such measures are exactly the kind that help make classrooms safer spaces for students.
"She was a happy little girl," Tichenor said. "But as we all know, even as adults, you know there are some voices that rang higher."
Suicide is complex; it's never the result of a single factor. Still, it's not hard to imagine how Izzy Tichenor's life might have been different if she'd been able to experience school as a safe space.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email [email protected]. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.