Any suicide rate is tragic. No matter a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, it’s heartbreaking to hear about any number of suicide attempts, even if it were just one. So why do some studies focus solely on LGBT people?
Youth.gov says “... lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have much higher levels of suicidal ideation than their heterosexual peers,” specifying that 15.1% to 34.3% of lesbian and gay highschool students have attempted suicide at least once, whereas only 3.8% to 9.6% of heterosexual students have. That’s a large gap.
You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “correlation does not equal causation.” It means that two statistics do not necessarily affect each other just because they line up. For instance, if a study shows that people who own expensive cars live longer, it doesn’t mean expensive cars make a person’s lifespan longer. There are other factors to take into consideration. People who own more expensive cars also have access to better healthcare, which is more likely to be the reason for their longer life.
Bearing this in mind, why are LGBT people more prone to suicidal thoughts and actions?
Although the current generation is much more accepting of LGBT people than past generations, life still isn’t easy for every LGBT person. Many get kicked out of their homes, bullied at school, or find it difficult to find jobs because of their orientation or identity.
According to Youth.gov, “These challenges, which researchers refer to as ‘microaggressions,’ can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges, as well as to suicide and self-harming behavior.”
Basically, this means that being gay doesn’t make you depressed; however, the way everyone reacts to you being gay might, depending on what kind of support systems you have.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information did a study using the national violent death reporting system, and they found that, while 24% of 12 to 14-year-olds who committed suicide were LGBT, only 8% of 25 to 29-year-olds who committed suicide were.
That makes sense to me for a number of reasons. If you’re older, you can mostly control who you interact with on a daily basis, unlike highschoolers who are forced to be around their bullies every day. If your family is unsupportive, you possibly have the option to live away from them. If you are able to live away from them, you’re able to express yourself more freely in the way you dress and the things you do.
Adults are also typically better at handling and understanding their emotions than the average highschooler. When a 12-year-old lacks access to the internet, they have no way of learning about the strange emotions they’re feeling that aren’t talked about in school. Typical sex education classes will teach about heterosexual attraction, but the lack of education about LGBT matters often leaves young students feeling broken or weird. Adults who have internet access can learn about these things much easier, and at their own leisure.
If we know why the suicide rates are so high in the LGBT community, why can’t we fix it?
Because it’s not that simple. “Fixing it” would require the ability to suddenly change every homophobic person’s mind, and, unfortunately, you can’t always teach someone to be a decent person.
Not all hope is lost though. Sure, we can’t snap some fingers and force homophobic parents to treat their LGBT children well, but we still have some ways to help lower the LGBT youth suicide rate.
Youth.gov lists some of these ways. It starts with helping to create safe and supportive environments, “particularly through affirming relationships with family and peers.” Next on their list is to help get legislation to protect the safety of LGBT youth passed. They also suggest “re-evaluating institutional practices that undermine positive child and youth development.”
The last item on their list is to build community awareness. Everyone should understand and try to prevent, or at least try to aid with, the many stressors in an LGBT youth’s life. For instance, if you know that LGBT youths often have no way to learn about their emotions, you could offer them a way to do so.
The suicide prevention resource center also stresses “connections to friends and others who care about them” as a preventative measure. Unfortunately, many homophobic parents will simply cut off their child’s access to any and all friends they deem “unacceptable” (i.e. LGBT, not religious, etc.) and only allow their child to interact with others in supervised settings. This is extremely harmful to the child, and it happens more often than you might think.
There are multiple organizations whose goal it is to prevent these things from happening. The Trevor Project is “the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.” They offer a free 24/7 hotline for young LGBT people in crisis to call for guidance and the ability to talk.
Although the world today is full of resources we didn’t have in the past, we still have a long way to go in terms of LGBT acceptance. Once we are able to get to a point in this world where being LGBT is fully accepted by everyone, the suicide rate will plummet. Until then, if you’re an LGBT person who feels as though they are in danger of themselves, reach out to someone and stay safe.
It gets better, so make sure you’re around to see when it does. The world needs you in it. That isn’t an opinion in this column; that’s a fact.