Researcher: Gay-Straight Alliances Key To Reducing Teen Suicide Attempts
Gay and straight teens who live in socio-politically conservative areas are more likely to attempt suicide, and the degree of an area’s political conservatism reflects the degree teens — gay or straight — are likely to attempt suicide. Conversely, the rate at which teens attempt suicide decreases with the more liberal an area is, defined by the number of Democrats and same-sex couples, along with gay-straight alliances, and anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies that specifically protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in schools, according to a new study by psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler, Ph.D., of Columbia University.
The ground-breaking study, published in the journal Pediatrics today, shows that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are more than five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. The study also showed that straight teens were 9% more likely to attempt suicide when living in the most conservative areas, compared to teens living in the most liberal areas.
Hatzenbuehler says it’s important to “create these environments for gay youth health,” because the study proves that “if you care about the health of gay youth, you are improving the health of straight youth, too.”
Hatzenbuehler conducted this study of 31,852 high school students in Oregon, by examining health surveys given from 2006-2008, to three-years worth of 11th grade students. Of note is that the study finds that 4.4% of the teens identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, similar to (albeit just slightly higher than) a recent study by The Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law, “How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender?,” which showed that close to 4% of the American adult population identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
In the study’s Pediatrics abstract, Hatzenbuehler writes, “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to attempt suicide in the previous 12 months, compared with heterosexuals (21.5% vs 4.2%). Among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempting suicide was 20% greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments. A more supportive social environment was significantly associated with fewer suicide attempts, controlling for sociodemographic variables and multiple risk factors for suicide attempts, including depressive symptoms, binge drinking, peer victimization, and physical abuse by an adult.”
Dr. Hatzenbuehler, whose “research on the impact of social policies on mental health disparities in LGB populations has been cited in an amicus brief for the California Supreme Court’s decision on Prop 8,” according to his bio at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Yale University.
I spoke with Dr. Hatzenbuehler today by phone and asked him how his study could help real-world teens and their families with the challenges they face. He tells me his hope is that his study will be used as “a roadmap for reducing suicides for LGBT youth.” He stressed that “gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying policies can have important beneficial mental health consequences,” contrary to recent attempts by some conservatives to limit or eliminate gay-straight alliances.
I asked Hatzenbuehler what he might say in response to detractors who blame the Left for suggesting to LGBT teens that they are more susceptible to suicide attempts. Dr. Hatzenbuehler says his study proves the exact opposite is true, that it “challenges those ideas that suicidal behavior is inherent to gay youth,” and that a conservative socio-political environment “strongly contributes to suicide rate numbers.”
But Hatzenbuehler also reminds us that, while LGBT teen suicide attempts are problematic, “the vast majority — 80% — of gay teens aren’t attempting suicide.”
I also asked Dr. Hatzenbuehler how he might respond to comments made from those, like Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage, who on Friday, and at other times, claimed that in Massachusetts, when same-sex marriage became legal, we did not see a decrease in gay teen suicide.
Hatzenbuehler says that studies show “LGB individuals living in states that passed gay marriage bans experienced an increase in psychiatric disorders,” when those bans went into place.
Bottom line, Hatzenbuehler says it’s important to “create these environments for gay youth health,” because the study proves that “if you care about the health of gay youth, you are improving the health of straight youth, too.”
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