April 22, 2011

Environment: A Factor in Young Gay Suicide

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- In the wake of several highly publicized suicides by gay teenagers, a new study shows a negative social environment surrounding gay youth is associated with high rates of suicide attempts by lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth.

The study of nearly 32,000 11th grade students in Oregon found that LGB youth were more than five-times as likely to have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months as their heterosexual peers (21.5 percent vs. 4.2 percent). Using a new tool designed to measure social environment, Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, found that LGB youth living in a social environment that was more supportive of gays and lesbians were 25-percent less likely to attempt suicide than LGB youth living in environments that were less supportive.

Overall, suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth ages 15 to 24, and LGB youth attempt suicide at significantly higher rates than heterosexuals. Few studies, however, have examined whether a young person's social environment contributes to the likelihood that he or she will attempt suicide.

"The results of this study are pretty compelling," Hatzenbuehler was quoted as saying. "When communities support their gay young people, and schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempted suicide by all young people drops, especially for LGB youth."

Hatzenbuehler developed five measures of the social environment surrounding LGB youth on a countywide level that included: 1) proportion of schools with anti-bullying policies specifically protecting LGB students; 2) proportion of schools with Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs); 3) proportion of schools with anti-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation; 4) proportion of same-sex couples; and 5) proportion of Democrats in the county.

The study found that a more supportive social environment was associated with 20-percent fewer suicide attempts than an unsupportive environment. A supportive environment was also associated with a 9 percent lower rate of attempted suicide among heterosexual students.

"This study shows that the creation of school climates that are good for gay youth can lead to better health outcomes for all young people," said Hatzenbuehler.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, published online April 18, 2011