Daniel Vujcich writes:

The control of scurvy started with two oranges and a lemon.  I find this to be a useful little fact to dig out when the public health challenges of this world start to overwhelm me.

This month, I have found another mantra to repeat:  it gets better.

The It Gets Better project was started in the US on 21 September 2010 in response to the suicides of Justin Aeberg, Billy Lucas, Cody Barker, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Raymond Chase and Tyler Clementi.  These seven teenage men all took their lives after being bullied because of their actual or perceived homosexuality.

Upon hearing about Billy Lucas, the 15 year old who hung himself in his grandmother’s barn, writer Dan Savage blogged, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes … I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”

Savage’s response was to upload an eight minute and 32 second YouTube video in which he and his husband Terry recount their experiences as gay men – the victimisation that they endured in the early years, coming out, being accepted by their families, meeting one another, starting their own family.

Savage ends the clip with this insight:  “If my adult self could talk to my fourteen year old self and tell him anything, it would tell him to really believe the lyrics to Somewhere from West Side Story.  There really is a place for us.  There really is a place for you, and one day you will have friends, who love and support you.  You will find love.  You will find a community.  And that life gets better.”

After four weeks, over 1000 videos have been uploaded to the site, all of them containing that simple promise (and often proof) of a better life. 

A young lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) person could feasibly watch a different clip every evening from tonight until at least July 2013.

There are videos from people of faith and people in uniform and people in positions of authority (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi).  There are messages that will make you cry, and make you want to fight and make you want to fist pump the air.

As far as public health interventions go, the “It Gets Better” concept stands out – it costs virtually nothing; it is easily rolled-out and accessed; it is expertly tailored for the group that it seeks to target. Moreover, the idea has a sound evidential base in so far as numerous studies have demonstrated that hopelessness is a strong risk factor for suicide attempts.

The challenge for Croakey readers is to reflect on what we, as a public health community, can learn from the project.

Can the model be extended to promote hope among other communities vulnerable to suicide – the mentally ill, our Indigenous population, youth generally?

Is there anything that we can do to increase the profile of the “It Gets Better” project among our own LGBT population?

Do you have any other ideas for addressing a major public health problem along the lines of the “It Gets Better” model (that is, an idea that is cheap, evidence-based and easy-to-implement)?

Two oranges, a lemon and eight and a half minutes of video footage; progress can be born of modest things.

• Daniel Vujcich,  a graduate of the University of Western Australia, is currently on a Rhodes Scholarship to the University of Oxford where he has completed a Master’s degree in International Development, and now reads for a doctorate in Public Health.  His research relates to the way in which Indigenous Australian health policies are formulated.


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