A new study of 32,000 high school students concurs with widely held opinion that in areas where anti-gay social and religious conservatism is dominant gay teens are more likely to make an attempt at taking their own lives, especially in the absence of LGBT-inclusive school programs. Interestingly however, the study also appears to show this trend holds true for straight identifying teens as well.
The study, published online today in the journal Pediatrics, was carried out by Mark Hatzenbuehler, a Columbia University psychologist and researcher.
More from The Washington Post:
His study found a higher rate of suicide attempts even among kids who weren’t bullied or depressed when they lived in counties less supportive of gays and with relatively few Democrats. A high proportion of Democrats was a measure used as a proxy for a more liberal environment.
The research focused only on the state of Oregon and created a social index to assess which outside factors might contribute to suicidal tendencies. Other teen health experts called it a powerful, novel way to evaluate a tragic social problem.
“Is it surprising? No. Is it important? Yes,” said Dr. Robert Blum of Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The study “takes our relatively superficial knowledge and provides a bit more depth. Clearly, we need lots more understanding, but this is very much a step in the right direction,” he said.
The study’s social index rated counties on five measures: prevalence of same-sex couples; registered Democratic voters; liberal views; schools with gay-straight alliances; schools with policies against bullying gay students; and schools with antidiscrimination policies that included sexual orientation.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual teens living in counties with the lowest social index scores were 20 percent more likely to have attempted suicide than gays in counties with the highest index scores. Overall, about 25 percent of gay teens in low-scoring counties had attempted suicide, versus 20 percent of gay teens in high-scoring counties.
As pointed out above, there were limitations of the study and it should be noted that it also relied on teens self-reporting suicide attempts, however the rate of gay and lesbian teens self-reporting a suicide attempt (20%) verses straight teens self-reporting (4%) roughly matches the disparity that has been found in previous studies into gay teen suicide rates.
Again, anti-gay religious conservatism would appear to impact heterosexual teens as well with the number of straight teens reporting suicide attempts being almost 9% higher in low scoring (less liberal) counties.
Linking to this, the key finding of this study is that environments that are welcoming for LGBT youths would also appear beneficial for straight youths as well.
The import of this is that when we work to tackle problems like anti-LGBT bullying with specifically tailored measures, we are still also engaging with the wider climate that all teenagers deal with and in that are in fact improving conditions for all kids.
This goes some way to answer the accusation that LGBT programs in schools are only being used to further a so-called gay agenda and would, at the very least, indicate a benefit to the wider student population.