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LGB Teens 5 times more likely to Attempt Suicide

April 26, 2011

A study published in Pediatrics this week claimed to have found a link between a negative ‘social environment’ and suicide attempts among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.[1] The headline of the news feed from Reuters read “Social environment linked to gay teen suicide risk”[2] The first line more accurately reflected the content of the study: “Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers – but those living in a supportive community might be a little better off…” The headline could have more accurately read “LGB Teens 5 times more likely to attempt suicide, whether they live in communities with positive or negative attitudes to homosexuality.”

The study found that 21.5% of LGB teens (vrs. 4.2% of heterosexual teens) surveyed in the Oregon Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported a suicide attempt. The authors attempted to link these suicides to community attitudes in the counties where the teens lived. They concocted a measure of social acceptance of homosexuality using 5 criteria: 1) proportion of same-sex couples; 2) proportion of Democrats; 3) schools with gay straight alliances; 4) schools with anti-LGB bullying policies; 5) school with anti-LGB-discrimination policies. They then gave each county a score. The study does not give us a list of the counties and how they scored. In fact the study does not provide the numbers they used to arrive at their conclusion. They did not tell us how many LGB students were in each county. Were there other features beside supposedly pro-LGB community attitudes that differentiate the counties?Oregonis a basically blue state with 2 Democrat Senators, 4 Democrat representatives, and 1 Republican representative (who represents 20 counties in the non-urban part of the state).

While LGB suicide attempts were higher in the counties designated as having a ‘negative climate;’ heterosexual suicide attempts were also higher. Likewise in the ‘positive climate’ counties, while LGB suicide attempts were lower, so were heterosexual suicide attempts. Are the researchers right in attributing this difference to attitudes to homosexuality, or could there be unrelated differences? We don’t know, because the researcher does not tell as which counties are rated as having a “negative climate.”

The study does reveal the clear link between depressive symptoms and suicide attempts among LGB teens. 35.88% of the lesbian or gay teens and 40.38% of the bisexual teens versus 17.06% of the heterosexual teens reported depressive symptoms in the last 12 months.

This finding is consistent with numerous other studies which have found an increased risk of depression and suicide attempts among LGB teens and adults. A birth cohort study done in New Zealand, a country noted for tolerance of the LGB’s  found that  the LGB young adults were 4 times as likely as their peers to suffer major depression, almost 3 times as likely to suffer generalized anxiety disorder, nearly 4 times as likely to experience conduct disorder, 6 times as likely to suffer multiple disorders, and over 6 times as likely to have attempted suicide.[3]

Another study using the same birth cohort found that:

” Both women and men who had experienced same-sex attraction had higher risks of self-harm. The odds ratios for suicidal ideation in the past year were 3.1 for men and 2.9 for women. Odds ratios for ever having deliberately self-harmed were 5.5 for men and 1.9 for women. Men with same-sex attraction were also significantly more likely to report having attempted suicide.”[4]

A study done in the Netherlandsfound that 67.9% of the homosexually active reported suicidal ideation and 32.1% had made a suicide attempt.[5] A follow up study questioned the argument that an intolerant climate was to blame for the striking differences:

This study suggests that even in a country with a comparatively tolerant climate regarding homosexuality, homosexual men were at much higher risk for suicidality than heterosexual men.[6]

Since for a significant number of LGB teens, the emergence of same-sex attraction in adolescence is related to untreated gender identity disorder in childhood, then it would seem prudent to recognize and treat those with this disorder before they become depressed suicidal teenagers. Since persons with SSA are more likely to be victims of sexual child abuse or other trauma, it is also important to address these early and not push adolescents into self-identifying as LGB. Such changes could have a more positive effect than increasing the number of Democrats and gay straight alliances.

Thankfully, while many LGB’s attempt, few succeed. However, there is a real risk to the lives and health of gay teens.  Boys who begin to engage in same-sex behavior in their teen years are at high risk of becoming HIV positive. The risk for a man who has sex with men between 13 and 24 is approximately 2% a year, multiply that by the number of years of sexual activity and that would mean that 18% of boys who start having sex with men at 13 will be HIV positive by 24. This in spite of massive anti-HIV education. Boys in ‘positive climate’ counties are probably at greater risk. This is the threat that should be studied.

[1] Mark Hatzenbuehler, “The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth,” Pediatrics (2011) 127 (5): pp. 896-903;

[2] “Genevra Pittman, “Social environment linked to gay teen suicide risk” (April 18, 2011)…

[3] David Fergusson, L. John Horwood, Annette Beautrais, “Is sexual orientation related to mental health problems and suicidality in young people?” Archives of General Psychiatry, (1999) 56 (10): pp. 876-80.

[4] Keren Skegg, et al, “Sexual Orientation and self-harm in men and women,” American Journal of Psychiatry, (2003) 160 (3): p. 541.

[5] Theo Sandfort et al., “Same-sex sexual behavior and psychiatric disorders: findings from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS). Archives of General Psychiatry, (2001) 58 (1): pp. 85-91.

[6] Ron de Graaf, Theo Sandfort, M. ten Have, “Sucidality and sexual orientation: Differences between men and women in a general population-based sample from the Netherlands,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (20060 35 (3): p. 253.

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