Suicide in the LGBTQ Community

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death amongst American citizens aged 15-34.16 Suicide rates have risen sharply in the past decade, making it a major public health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more Americans die of suicide than in car crashes. In 2010 they reported 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle accidents and 38,364 suicides. Interpreting suicide rates can be difficult because local officials report causes of death in different ways. Even so, the CDC and academic researchers agree that documented data shows an actual increase in deaths by suicide and is not a statistical anomaly.9

There is no single cause for suicide. Causes for suicide include a variety of health, environmental, and historical factors. With that being said, research shows that certain groups of people are at higher risk of suicide. For example, people suffering from mental health conditions like depression have an increased chance of committing suicide. Research also shows that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than are females. Male deaths represent 79% of all suicides in the United States. Sadly, studies consistently cite lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth as one of the most at-risk groups for suicide (with a 32 percent rate of attempted suicide, compared to a 7 percent rate for their heterosexual peers).3

 

Adolescent Suicide

 

Adolescence is a difficult period of life for everyone. Experiencing the physical changes of puberty can feel awkward or embarrassing and hormonal changes can lead to extreme emotions and mood swings. It is normal to feel confused or insecure during adolescence, but research shows that especially high rates of psychological distress are observed in LGBTQ youth. A recent study found that, compared to the overall youth population, youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) are at greater risk of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, victimization by peers, and increased number of absences from school. Bisexual youth appeared to be particularly at risk. Evidence also showed that these risks were significantly higher in middle school, suggesting elevated early risk for LGBTQ-identified adolescents.4 National studies in the United States and Canada indicate that adolescent members of the LGBTQ community are three to six times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts and that 30 percent of youth suicides are related to issues pertaining to sexual identity.5 Further study conducted in Quebec, Canada concluded that gay and bisexual teens are actually six to sixteen times more likely to commit suicide. Statistics show that 28 percent of completed suicides were carried out by LGBTQ youth. 18 to 42 percent of surveyed LGBTQ persons described attempts on their own lives. 38 percent also reported being physically or emotionally distressed by encounters of blatant homophobia. Tragically, 77 percent of transgender adolescents have admitted to suicidal thoughts, and 43 percent have acted on these thoughts.3

 

In the past, people believed these high rates of suicide and distress were the direct result of an LGBTQ identity. Now, such difficulties are widely attributed to the adverse social conditions that LGBTQ youth frequently experience as a result of the stigma that society attaches to their identities. Gay and gender non-conforming youth are frequently met with discrimination and hostility. LGBTQ young people are at increased risk for experiences with violence, which can include behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, and suicide-related behaviors. Recent findings from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educational Network (GLSEN) found that 9 out of 10 LGBT students has been harassed at school during the past year. The national study also found that 54% of respondents reported being cyberbullied within the past three months. Those who had experienced harassment were found to be at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide.6

Another study surveyed more than 7000 seventh- and eighth-grade students from a large Midwestern county in the United States to examine the effects of school social environments and homophobic bullying on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning youth, drawing the conclusions listed below.1

 
  • LGBQ students reported higher levels of bullying and substance use than heterosexual students.
  • Students who were questioning their sexual orientation reported more bullying, homophobic victimization, unexcused absences from school, substance use, depression, and suicidal behaviors than either heterosexual or LGB students.
  • LGB students who did not experience homophobic teasing reported the lowest levels of depression and suicidal feelings of all student groups (heterosexual, LGB, and questioning students).
  • Regardless of sexual orientation, all students groups reported the lowest levels of depression, suicidal feelings, substance use, and unexcused absences from school when they were in a positive school climate and not exposed to homophobic teasing.8

What schools can do

Adolescents thrive when they feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported at school. Among LGBTQ students, a positive school environment has been associated with decreased suicidal behaviors as well as lower levels of depression, substance use, and unexcused absences.12 Policies, procedures, and activities schools can be implemented to promote a healthy school climate for all students. The following policies and practices are recommended by the CDC to create a safe and supportive climate on school campuses.

  • Emphasize respect for others and prohibit bullying, harassment, and violence against all students.
  • Establish “safe spaces,” such as counselors’ offices or student organizations, where LGBTQ students can receive support from school staff.
  • Encourage student-organized school clubs like Gay-Straight Alliance that promote a safe and accepting school environment.
  • Develop training sessions on how to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientations, and urge staff to attend these sessions.
  • Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience in providing social and psychological services, such as counseling, to LGBTQ adolescents.8

Recent studies on school sponsored support groups such as Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) have generated optimistic results. Students in schools with GSA reported hearing fewer homophobic comments, experienced less harassment and assault because of their sexual and gender orientation, and were more likely to report instances of harassment and assault to school administrators. They were also less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, were less likely to miss school, and expressed a greater sense of belonging within their social and academic communities.10 Furthermore, researchers found that LGBTQ students had fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts when schools had gay-straight alliances and policies prohibiting expression of homophobia in place for 3 or more years.15

 

What parents can do

How parents choose to respond to their LGBTQ child greatly impacts their adolescent’s current and future well-being. Supportive reactions from parents can help youth cope with the many challenges facing LGTBQ teenagers. Unfortunately, many parents react negatively when learning their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a Human Rights Campaign survey, more than one in four LGBTQ youth say lack of support from parents and relatives is the biggest problem in their lives.7 Experiencing parental rejection can leads to long-term psychological damage. Research indicates that adolescents lacking parental support for their sexual orientation are at higher risk for mental health problems, drug use, and unprotected sex.13 Alarmingly, those who reported feeling rejected by their families were eight times more likely to have attempted suicide.14 It is not uncommon for parents to kick their adolescents out of their family home, nor is it uncommon for LGBTQ youth to run away. As a result, LGBTQ adolescents are at greater risk for homelessness than heterosexual adolescents, particularly in urban areas.4 LGBTQ youth make up as much as 35 percent of the homeless population in Los Angeles.

Research show that when LGBTQ adolescents receive the parental support they need, it puts them on the road to a healthy adulthood. A study conducted at Columbia University in 2014 found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults with greater family support show lower cortisol reactivity—a measure of stress—to lab stress tests.2 For this reason, it is important that parents learn to accept and love their children regardless of sexual preference or gender identity. Engaging in open and honest communication is a great place to start.

Although more research is needed to better understand the relationship between parenting and LGBTQ adolescent health, a selection of CDC-recommended steps parents can take to support the health and well-being of their LGBTQ child is provided below.

  • Talk and listen. Parents can help their child feel loved and supported by inviting an open discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Provide support. Research shows that parents who take the time to come to terms with their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be more able to respond calmly and use respectful language. Parents should develop common goals with their child, including staying healthy and performing well in school.
  • Stay involved. Parents who know their child’s friends and keep track of what their child is doing can help their adolescent safe and feeling cared about.
  • Be proactive. Parents can access organizations and online information resources to learn more about how to support their LGBTQ child.8

 

Suicide Warning Signs and Risk Factors

Warning Signs

There are usually warning signs when a person is suicidal. Something to look out for is a change in their behavior or the development of entirely new behaviors, especially if the new or different behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or major life change. Most people who commit suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.1

When a person is suicidal, red flags may appear in their words, behavior, or mood. Someone may be suicidal if they talk about:

    • Being a burden to others
    • Being in unbearable pain
    • Feeling trapped or hopeless
    • Having no reason to live
    • Killing themselves11

    Specific behaviors indicating that a person may be suicidal include:

    • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
    • Searching online for means or methods to kill themselves
    • Acting recklessly
    • Withdrawing from activities
    • Isolating themselves from family and friends
    • Sleeping too much or too little
    • Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
    • Aggression11

    People who are considering suicide usually display one or more of the following moods:

    • Depression
    • Loss of interest
    • Anxiety
    • Irritability
    • Rage
    • Humiliation11

    Risk Factors

    Risk factors are characteristics and/or conditions that increase the chance that someone may try to commit suicide.11

    The health conditions listed below are all risk factors.

    • Mental illness
        • Depression
        • Bipolar
        • Schizophrenia
        • Borderline or antisocial personality disorder
        • Anxiety disorders
      • Substance abuse disorders, such as drug and alcohol addition
      • Serious health condition and/or chronic pain11

      The environmental factors listed below also increase the chance that a person may try to take their life.

      • Stressful life events such as death, divorce, or job loss
      • Prolonged stress due to harassment, bullying, relationship problems, or unemployment
      • Access to firearms and/or drugs
      • Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide11

      The historical factors listed below increase risk for suicide as well.

      • Previous suicide attempts
      • Family history of suicide11

       

      Getting Help

      Suicide

      1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8245)

      National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Provides free, confidential crisis counseling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Chat with someone using the Lifestyle Crisis Chat.

       

      1-800-621-4000

      National Adolescent Suicide Hotline.

       

      Self-Harm

      1-800-DONT-CUT (1-800-366-8288)

      Self-Injury support: Call if you are self-harming or thinking about self-harm.

       

      Gender Identification

      1-888-843-4564

      Gay and Lesbian National Hotline.

       

      Youth and Teens

      1-800-448-4663

      National Youth Crisis Support.

       

      1-866-488-7386

      The Trevor Project: Crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ young people.

       

      Mental Health

      1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264)

      National Alliance on Mental Illness: Answers questions about mental health issues. Not an emergency/counseling hotline. Provides referrals.

       

      1-800-447-4474

      Mental Health Infosource.

       

      References

      1. Birkett M, Espelage DL, Koenig B. LGB and questioning students in schools: The moderating effects of homophobic bullying and school climate on negative outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence 2009;38:989–1000.
      2. Burton CL, Bonanno GA, Hatzenbuehler ML. Familial social support predicts a reduced cortisol response to stress in sexual minority young adults. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2014;47:241-245. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2014.05.013. Epub 2014 May 27.
      3. Carol, M. (2011, October 7). Mental illness? Yes, but also homophobia. The Globe and Mail, Retrieved from http://theglobeandmail.com
      4. Coker TR, Austin SB, Schuster MA. The health and health care of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents. Annual Review of Public Health 2010;31:457–477
      5. Espelage DL, Aragon SR, Birkett M. Homophobic teasing, psychological outcomes, and sexual orientation among high school students: What influence do parents and schools have? School Psychology Review 2008;37:202–216.
      6. GLSEN. The 2009 National School Climate Survey Executive Summary: Key Findings on the Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York, NY: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network; 2009.
      7. Hirsh, JS. (2015, April 14). A scientific look at the damage parents do when they bully their gay kids. The Washington Post, Retrieved from http://washingtonpost.com
      8. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health. (2014, November 12). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm
      9. Parker-Pope, T. (2013, May 2). Suicide rates rise sharply in U.S. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com
      10. Pike, D. (2012). The Gift of Positive Space Groups: A Transformation for LGBTQ Students. Education Canada, 52(3).
      11. Risk Factors and Warning Signs. (2016). Retrieved from http://afsp.org/about-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs/
      12. Robinson, J. P., & Espelage, D. L. (2011). Inequities in educational and psychological outcomes between LGBTQ and straight students in middle and high school. Educational researcher40(7), 315-330.
      13. Rothman EF, Sullivan M, Keyes S, Boehmer U. Parents' supportive reactions to sexual orientation disclosure associated with better health: results from a population-based survey of LGB adults in Massachusetts. J Homosex 2012;59(2):186-200. doi: 10.1080/00918369.2012.648878
      14. Ryan C, Huebner D, Diaz RM, Sanchez J. Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults. Pediatrics 2009 Jan;123(1):346-52. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-3524.
      15. Saewcy EM, Konishi C, Rose HA, Homma Y. School-based strategies to reduce suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and discrimination among sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents in Western Canada. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies 2014;1:89‒112.
      16. Ten Leading Causes of Death. (2016, February 25). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/leadingcauses.html

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