A new study found some stunning results: After same-sex marriage became legal on a state level, the rate at which young people attempted suicide in that state dropped significantly.
Published this week in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the new study used data from the hundreds of thousands of students who participated in the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) between 1999 and 2015. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, and Boston Children’s Hospital looked at 32 different states that legalized same-sex marriage in that span of time and found a consistent drop in teen suicide attempts in each state after marriage equality arrived.
Overall, the suicide rate attempt among all high school students dropped 7 percent in the year after marriage equality arrived in a state. For students who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or who were still questioning their orientation — a group whom the suicide attempt rate is much higher — the drop-off in suicide attempts was 14 percent after the arrival of marriage equality.
Because the effect was specific to each state as it legalized marriage equality, it cannot be dismissed as mere correlation. In fact, during the same span of time, suicide rates in the country were actually increasing across almost all age groups.
Though marriage equality was clearly an indicator for improved LGB mental health, researchers were cautious to draw conclusions about what exactly about marriage equality contributed to the effect. For example, the laws themselves could have communicated directly to LGB youth that they were more equal — but the positive effect could have also been associated with increased visibility of same-sex couples, or perhaps an increase in perceived social support because of the conversations the issue was helping start.
Regardless, the study offers a profound addition to the wealth of research already documenting the impact of what psychologists call “minority stress.” For example, a study published earlier this month in Australia found that LGB people who had strong social support and affirmation had normative rates of depression and anxiety, while only those who experienced rejection or had past experiences of trauma experienced higher rates. Several other studies in the U.S. have found that simply living in more conservative communities can have a negative impact.