This is a particularly important health topic to address. Mental health is too often tabooed by society. And while I have no intention of (eventually) becoming a psychiatrist, all physicians must be sensitive to mental health issues. The first time I heard the following it shocked me, but now I repeat it in hopes that it helps someone – perhaps someone who’s reading this or knows someone who could benefit.
To begin, a few statistics. The Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide published in 1989 by the US government found:
“A majority of suicide attempts by homosexuals occur during their youth, and gay youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. They may comprise up to 30 percent of completed youth suicides annually.” (Gibson, pg. 110)
Troubling is that I heard this data was suppressed for several years after being initially published in 1989 before it surfaced to light.
Suicide ideation (thoughts of suicide) is estimated at between 50% and 70% for LGBTQ youths with actual suicide attempts ranging from 30-42%. Some studies further suggest that for LGBTQ youths who’re also racial minorities, the rates of “suicide activity” may be even higher. Interestingly, some studies further suggest that bisexual and/or questioning youths maybe at higher risk for suicidal behavior than homosexual youths. There is a lack of data on transgender youths, as much of the data is on transgender people of all ages. In one survey on TransActiveOnline.org, 45% of transgender youths have seriously thought about suicide.
Now some caveats on such studies. First, it’s difficult to truly assess who is and isn’t at risk for suicide; thus, suicide risk can be underestimated or overestimated. Second, non-heterosexuality is often hidden during the adolescent years (read: closet). Third, co-morbid/covariate factors (variables other than the primary variable that contribute to the outcome of interest) haven’t been well researched.
Study flaws and limitations aside, the numbers remain worrisome. Being LGBTQ certainly appears to be a risk factor for suicide, but being LGBTQ isn’t causal. That is to say, the increase in suicide risk among LGBTQ youth isn’t because they’re LGBTQ in and of itself, but because of all the socio-cultural baggage that comes with it all. So what do we do with this knowledge? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure as I don’t know enough yet myself. But awareness is certainly the first step – consider this my PSA for the month.