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February 21, 2017

Legalizing same-sex marriage reduces youth suicide rates

The legalization of same-sex marriage at the state level has been associated with a significant decline in the attempted suicide rate of high school students and LGBT adolescents, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report in a new study.

Writing in Monday’s edition of JAMA Pediatrics, Julia Raifman, a post-doctoral fellow in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Epidemiology, and her colleagues explained that the passage of state-level same-sex marriage policies were associated with more than 134,000 less adolescent age suicide attempts per year. The findings were also reported at the website PsyPost.

To be specific, the researchers analyzed state-level Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) data from January 1999 through December 2015 and found that state-level, same-sex marriage policies were linked with a 7% reduction in the number of high school students who reported attempting suicide within the previous year.

“These are high school students, so they aren’t getting married anytime soon, for the most part,” Dr. Raifman said in a statement. “Still, permitting same-sex marriage reduces the structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. There may be something about having equal rights – even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them – that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.”

As expected, LGBT students were the most affected

The study authors looked at YRBSS data for 32 of the 35 states which had enacted same-sex marriage laws between January 2004 and January 2015, and reviewed data from 1999 through the end of 2015 to find trends in suicide attempts five years before the first state-level marriage equality policy went into effect in Massachusetts.

They compared data with states that did not enact same-sex marriage laws while conducting a state-by-state analysis as well (for instance, they looked at suicide attempt rates in Massachusetts both before and after the passage of its marriage equality law). What they discovered, they said, was evidence that social policy can have a direct impact on behavior and health.

In addition to the 7% overall reduction in suicide attempts among high school students, the team found a 14% reduction in attempts among LGBT teens that persisted for a period of at least two years. States that did not implement same-sex marriage laws, however, saw no such reduction in suicide attempts among high school-aged youngsters, according to the study’s findings.

Even with the decline, gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students still attempted suicide far more often than their straight peers, the researchers said. “It’s not easy to be an adolescent, and for adolescents who are just realizing they are sexual minorities, it can be even harder,” said Dr. Raifman. “That’s what the data... tell us.”

Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that legalizing same-sex marriage appeared to be positively associated with reducing suicide attempts, while policies that limit rights or which increase stigma would likely have the opposite effect. “We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views,” Dr. Raifman added.

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