40% of teens who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or unsure of orientation considered suicide in the past year
Even with advances, too many of these teens live in harmful environments, experts say
LGBQ teens are more vulnerable to planning or attempting suicide, according to a research letter published Tuesday in the journal JAMA.
Looking at answers in the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey in the US, researchers found that 40% of high school students who are considered sexual minorities – who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual or questioning, meaning they are unsure of their orientation – were seriously considering suicide.
Transgender teens were not included in the US government’s survey, but research has shown that transgender youth may face a similarly high, if not higher, suicide risk.
The survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at a nationally representative sample of 15,624 students across the country in that were in grades 9 through 12 (typically 14 to 18 years old).
Of the sexual minorities in the study, 34.9% were planning suicide and 24.9% had attempted suicide in the previous year. Compared with heterosexual teens, those numbers are exceptionally high: Of the straight teens in the study, 14.8% had seriously considered suicide, 11.9% had been planning suicide, and 6.3% had made an attempt in the past year.
The children who were bisexual faced the greatest suicide risk; 46% had considered suicide in the past year. Bisexual girls were the most vulnerable, with nearly 48% saying they had considered taking their own lives.
Girls who identify as lesbian also had higher rates. More than 40% said they seriously considered suicide in the past year; in comparison, 19.6% of girls who considered themselves heterosexual said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year. Of boys who identify as gay, 25.5% had.
Past research has noted the higher suicide risks for these groups, but much of that work comes from regional surveys, or teens who were surveyed were not from a general sample of the population.
This research is one of the first nationally available estimates representing the general population, and it documents how LGBQ teens’ experience with suicide is different from that of other youth.
“We want this to be a wake-up call and a call to action, so that this will become a part of the national agenda to address this very real public health crisis,” said research co-author John W. Ayers, a computational epidemiologist who works as an adjunct associate professor at San Diego State University.
He hopes the numbers will prompt a “comprehensive reaction” from policy-makers, clinicians and parents and teachers. “While this may be a small subset of our teens, this burden is tremendous.”
Jason Cianciotto, executive director of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, agreed.
“The question is, how many times are we going to reveal the same horrific information about young people in the US before we do something about this?” asked Cianciotto, who was not involved in the new study. The Clementi family created the anti-bullying foundation after Tyler, who had been bullied for being gay, died in 2010 having jumped off a bridge.
When Cianciotto was co-authoring the book “LGBT Youth in America’s Schools,” he came across similar startling suicide statistics that go back as far as the late 1980s.
What’s driving them, he said, is that not all teens live in a supportive culture, even with the advances in same-sex marriage, inclusive anti-bullying programs and non-discrimination protection. Many evangelical Christians, for instance, still preach that LGBTQ kids are going to hell, he said.
“There are still too many LGBTQ young people growing up in harmful environments where they are rejected at home or at church or school; they face pervasive bullying; they lack access to safe or supportive spaces and don’t have supportive physical or mental health care, and all those comorbidities pile up and increase the suicide risk,” Cianciotto said.
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Research has shown that lesbian, gay and bisexual students had fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts when schools had gay-straight alliances and had long-term policies prohibiting expression of homophobia. Yet not all schools have these programs, although national groups like the Trevor Project offer 24/7 crisis lines to help young LGBTQ people.
In a separate study on suicide issues concerning LGBTQ teens, also published Tuesday, researchers saw a heightened risk for suicide and found that these teens were more likely than their straight peers to have experienced some form of adverse childhood experience such as abuse. The authors of this study also say there is evidence that suicide rates are going up for this age group.
“Too little is changing, and for too long, our society has put Band-Aids on this problem,” Cianciotto said. “While Band-Aids are good, we need to help by better addressing the root causes of these problems.”