New Evidence Helps Explain High Rate Of LGB Youth Suicide Attempts

CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
CREDIT: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Studies have previously suggested that bullying, religious condemnation, and overall conservative attitudes can contribute to lesbian, gay, and bi youth considering or attempting suicide. Now, two new studies further demonstrate how LGB youth are targeted for rejection and how that contributes to depression that can lead to suicidal thinking.

The smaller of these new studies, conducted by Dr. Jae Puckett, Dr. Audrey Ervin, and Dr. Sharon Horne, examined the experiences of a group of LGB youth in the area of Memphis, Tennessee. They found that about 37.7 percent of those youth reported having attempted suicide. Almost all of them experienced some kind of mistreatment from their parents or guardians, including insults, criticism, being made to feel guilty, ridicule or humiliation, and embarrassment. In fact, LGB youth who experienced maltreatment from their caregivers were 9.5 times more likely to have attempted suicide — but that wasn’t actually the most significant predictor.

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According to their results, losing a friend when coming out as LGB seemed to have the biggest impact on whether someone had attempted suicide. Youth who lost friends after coming out as LGB were 29 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.

In a statement, Ervin pointed out that this demonstrates the importance of making sure that LGB youth have others they can connect with as they come to terms with their identities. “When youth do face rejection from peers,” she said, “creating an alternative space, such as a student group, where they can find the understanding and connection they lack in other areas of their lives can be helpful.” Previous studies have shown that the presence of a gay-straight alliance (GSA) can help mitigate depression and even improve students’ success when they head off to college.

These findings inform “heartbreaking” new results from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. For the first time ever, this assessment of adolescent health invited participants to disclose their sexual orientation, providing new insights into not only how young people are identifying themselves (2 percent identified as gay or lesbian, 6 percent as bi, and 3 percent as not sure), but how their experiences are different because they are not heterosexual. Here are some of the shocking results, based on some 15,600 responses:

  • LGB youth were three times as likely to have experienced sexual assault (17.8 percent) compared to their heterosexual peers (5.4 percent).
  • 34 percent of LGB teens reported having been bullied at school, nearly twice the rate that heterosexual students were bullied (19 percent).
  • 28 percent of LGB students reported being cyberbullied, double the rate of heterosexual students (14 percent).
  • 10 percent of LGB students had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, double the rate of heterosexual students (5 percent).
  • LGB students were more likely to have been involved in a physical fight (28 percent) than heterosexual students (21 percent), but twice as likely to have been injured in such a fight (5 percent) than their heterosexual peers (2.5 percent).

These results jibe with GLSEN’s biannual studies that have consistently found a hostile climate in schools for LGBT youth.

According to the CDC, this mistreatment had severe consequences for LGB youths’ education:

  • LGB students were nearly three times as likely (12.5 percent) to skip school because of safety concerns than their heterosexual peers (4.6 percent). This result suggests that, because the survey was taken at school, the rest of these numbers might be even higher and LGB students simply weren’t there to take it.
  • LGB students were more likely to have ever tried smoking cigarettes (50 percent vs. 30 percent) and more likely to be a current cigarette smoker (19.2 percent vs. 9.8 percent). They similarly had higher rates of alcohol and illegal drug use.
  • LGB students were more than twice as likely (60.4 percent) to have experienced feelings of depression or hopelessness compared to their heterosexual peers (26.4 percent).
  • LGB students were nearly three times as likely (42.8 percent) to have seriously considered attempting suicide compared to their heterosexual peers (14.8 percent). They were likewise significantly more likely to have made a suicide plan (38.2 percent vs. 11.9 percent) and to have actually attempted suicide in the past year (29.4 percent vs. 6.4 percent).

The Human Rights Campaign called the findings a “call to action,” with HRC Foundation Senior Vice President Mary Beth Maxwell demanding, “From the messages youth receive at their kitchen table, in their classroom, and on prime-time T.V., we all must do more to put an end to anti-LGBTQ stigma.”

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Because the CDC study still does not invite transgender and gender nonconforming students to identify themselves, it provides no information on their experiences.