Suicide in the LGBTQ+ Community

Disclaimer: This article discusses suicide, violence, homophobia, and transphobia.  If you are suicidal, have suicidal tendencies, or are sensitive to suicide there are resources provided at the end of the article that can provide you with support. It is always okay to ask for help.

Suicide rates have risen sharply in the past decade, making it a major public health concern. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death amongst American citizens aged 15-34.1 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more Americans die of suicide than in car crashes.1 Interpreting suicide rates can be difficult because local officials report causes of death in different ways. Even so, academic researchers and the CDC both agree that documented data shows an increase in deaths by suicide and that it is not a statistical anomaly.2

There is no single cause for suicide. Causes for suicide include a variety of health, environmental, and historical factors. These factors may overlap, which can put someone at an even higher-risk for suicidal tendencies. With that being said, research shows that certain communities are at higher risk of suicide. People suffering from mental health conditions, such as depression, may have an increased chance of committing suicide. Research shows that there are also gender disparities in suicide deaths.3 Men are three and a half times more likely to die by suicide than females.3 Seventy percent of all suicide deaths in the United States in 2017 were committed by white males.3 Studies also consistently cite lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) youth as one of the most at-risk groups for suicide. This community has a 32 percent rate of attempted suicide, compared to a 7 percent rate for their heterosexual-cisgender peers.4 Although this article focues on the elevated levels of suicide among the LGBTQ+ community, we acknowledge that this issue affects people of all different backgrounds and identities. Suicide is a very rampent health crisis in America; one can never truly tell who might be contemplating suicide and many individuals may not even be out with their identities for fear of social and familial rejection. 

Adolescent Suicide

Adolescence is a difficult period of life for many individuals. Experiencing the physical changes of puberty can feel awkward or embarrassing and hormonal changes can lead to emotional disturbance and mood swings. It is normal to feel confused or insecure during adolescence, but research shows that especially high rates of psychological distress are observed in LGBTQ+ youth. A recent study found that, compared to the overall youth population, adolescents who identify as LGBTQ+ are at a greater risk of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, victimization by peers, and increased number of absences from school.5 Bisexual youth in particular are even more likely to be at risk of suicide compared to their homosexual peers.5 Evidence also showed that the likelihood of suicidal ideation was significantly higher in middle school, suggesting elevated early risk for queer identified adolescents.6 

National studies in the United States and Canada indicate that adolescent members of the LGBTQ+ community are three to six times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts and that 30 percent of youth suicides are related to issues pertaining to sexual identity.7 Furthermore, studies conducted in Quebec, Canada found that gay and bisexual teens are actually six to sixteen times more likely to commit suicide. Of the suicides that were carried out, 28 percent were committed by LGBTQ+ youth. Moreover, between 18 to 42 percent of surveyed LGBTQ+ persons have attempted to take their own lives. Finally, 38 percent of the LGBTQ+ participants reported being physically or emotionally distressed by encounters of blatant homophobia.7  The rates of suicide are especially high in the transgender community. Tragically, 77 percent of transgender adolescents have admitted to suicidal thoughts, and 43 percent have acted on these thoughts.4

Cause of LGBTQ+ Suicide

In the past, people believed these high rates of suicide and distress were the direct result of an LGBTQ+ identity. People believed that individuals in the LGBTQ+ community were mentally unhealthy people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and used this to explain the skewed suicide rates. However, this view has been disproven, and research suggests that these statistics are the result of the social ostracization and negative stigma that LGBTQ+ individuals are subjected to.4 Individuals who do not identify with the default cisgender-heterosexual norm are frequently met with discrimination and hostility solely because of their identity. LGBTQ+ youth are at increased risk for experiences with violence, which can include behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, domestic violence, and sexual assault.8 Recent surveys showed that 18 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) students reported being raped at least once in their lives, three times the rate of that for straight students.8

Another study surveyed more than 7,000 seventh and eighth grade students from a large midwestern county in the United States to examine the effects of school social environments and homophobic bullying on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning youth. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students reported higher levels of bullying and substances abuse than their heterosexual conterparts. Students who were questioning their sexual orientation also reported more bullying, homophobic victimization, unexcused absences from school, substance use, depression, and suicidal behaviors than either heterosexual or LGB students. LGB students who did not experience homophobic teasing reported the lowest levels of depression and suicidal feelings of all student groups (heterosexual, LGB, and questioning students). Ultimately, regardless of sexual orientation, all students groups reported the lowest levels of depression, suicidal feelings, substance use, and unexcused absences from school when they were in a positive school climate and not exposed to homophobic teasing.9

Suicide Warning Signs

There are certain warning signs that can indicate the possibility of a person being suicidal. Most people who commit suicide exhibit one or more warning signs, either through what they say or what they do.10 One such sign is a noticeable change in behavior or the development of entirely new behaviors, especially if the new or different behavior is related to a painful event, loss, or major life change. When a person is suicidal, or contemplating suicide, indications of this may appear in their words, behavior, or mood. Someone may be suicidal if they talk about being a burden to others, being in unbearable pain, feeling trapped or helpless, having no reason to live, killing themselves.11 If an individual is suicidal they may display behaviors such as increased use of alcohol or drugs, searching online for methods or means to kill themselves, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities, isolating themselves from family and friends, sleeping too much or too little, visiting or calling people to say goodbye, or displaying aggressive behaviors.11People who are considering suicide may display moods such as depression, loss of interest, anxiety, irritability, rage, humiliation.11

An individual exhibiting one or more of these signs does not conclusively indicate that they are suicidal. However, if one observes these behaviors or patterns in someone it may be a good idea to check in with that person, express your support for them, and possibly point them to resources and/or support spaces if they ask for help.

Suicide Risk Factors

Risk factors are characteristics and/or conditions that increase the chance that someone may attempt to commit suicide.11

If an individual experiences mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia disorder, borderline or antisocial personality disorder, or anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, chronic pain, they may be at a heightened risk for suicide.11 Furthermore, stressful life events such as death, divorce, or job loss, prolonged stress due to harassment, bullying, relationship problems, or unemployment, access to firearms and/or drugs, exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide are all environmental factors that can put an individual at a higher risk of suicide.11 If a person has previous suicide attempts or a family history of suicide a person then they are also at a higher risk for suicide.11

How Schools Can Create a Better Environment for LGBTQ+ Youth

Adolescents thrive when they feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported at school. Among LGBTQ+ students, a positive school environment has been associated with decreased suicidal ideation as well as lower levels of depression, substance use, and unexcused school absences.12 Policies, procedures, and activities can be implemented to promote a healthy school climate for all students. The following policies and practices are recommended by the CDC to create a safe and supportive climate on school campuses.

  • Emphasize respect for others and prohibit bullying, harassment, and violence against all students.
  • Establish “safe spaces,” such as counselors’ offices or student organizations, where LGBTQ+ students can receive support from school staff.
  • Encourage student-organized school clubs like Gay-Straight Alliance that promote a safe and accepting school environment.
  • Develop training sessions on how to create a safe and supportive school environment for all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, and urge staff to attend these sessions.
  • Facilitate access to community-based providers who have experience in providing social and psychological services, such as counseling, to LGBTQ+ adolescents.9

When schools demonstrate values that affirm and support LGBTQ+ students it has a profound effect on the well being of their students. Recent studies on school sponsored support groups such as Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) have generated optimistic results for the LGBTQ+ community.13 Students in schools with GSA reported hearing fewer homophobic comments, experienced less harassment and assault based on their sexual and gender orientation, and were more likely to report instances of harassment and assault to school administrators.13 They were also less likely to feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, were less likely to miss school, and expressed a greater sense of belonging within their social and academic communities.13 Furthermore, researchers found that LGBTQ+ students had fewer suicidal thoughts and attempts when schools had gay-straight alliances and policies prohibiting expression of homophobia in place for 3 or more years.14

How Parents Can Support LGBTQ+ Youth

How parents choose to respond to their LGBTQ+ child greatly impacts their adolescent’s current and future well-being. Supportive reactions from parents can help youth cope with the many challenges facing LGTBQ+ teenagers. Unfortunately, some parents react negatively when learning their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. According to a Human Rights Campaign survey, more than one in four LGBTQ+ youth say that a lack of support from parents and relatives is the biggest problem in their lives.15 Experiencing parental rejection because of one’s identity can lead to long-term psychological damage. Research indicates that adolescents lacking parental support for their sexual orientation are at higher risk for mental health problems, drug use, and unprotected sex.16 Alarmingly, those who reported feeling rejected by their families were eight times more likely to have attempted suicide.17 It is not uncommon for parents to kick their LGBTQ+ children out of their family home, nor is it uncommon for LGBTQ+ youth to run away. As a result, LGBTQ+ adolescents are at greater risk for homelessness than heterosexual adolescents, particularly in urban areas.6 LGBTQ+ youth make up as much as 35 percent of the homeless population in Los Angeles.15 This statistic is especially staggering since a recent survey by the US Centers for Disease Control showed that only 8 percent of high school students in America identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.8

Research shows that when LGBTQ+ adolescents receive the parental support they need, it puts them on the road to a healthy and happy adulthood. A study conducted at Columbia University in 2014 found that LGB young adults with greater family support show lower cortisol reactivity—a measure of stress—to lab stress tests.18 For this reason, it is important that parents learn to accept and love their children regardless of sexual preference or gender identity. 

More research is needed to better understand the relationship between parenting and LGBTQ+ adolescent health. However, based on current research, the CDC has outlined several steps parents can take to support the health and well-being of their LGBTQ+ child. These steps are provided below.

  • Talk and listen. Parents can help their child feel loved and supported by inviting an open discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • Provide support. Research shows that parents who take the time to come to terms with their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be more able to respond calmly and use respectful language. 
  • Stay involved. Parents who know their child’s friends and keep track of what their child is doing can help their adolescent safe and feeling cared about.
  • Be proactive. Parents can access organizations and online information resources to learn more about how to support their LGBTQ+ child.9

What Peers Can Do To Support LGBTQ+ Youth

Suicide is something that can affect anyone. The way society treats LGBTQ+ individuals, this can cause people in this community to struggle with their mental health and make them more at risk for suicidal thoughts. One of the best things an individual can do for the LGBTQ+ youth is to be an active and supportive ally for the LGBTQ+ community. In creating a safe and supportive environment, this can empower LGBTQ+ individuals to feel safe being their true selves and also feel comfortable asking for help if they need it. 

Getting Help

The following resources are available to support and assist individuals who may be struggling with their mental health or are experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

Suicide Prevention

1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8245)

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: provides free, confidential crisis counseling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Chat with someone using the Lifestyle Crisis Chat.

 Self-Harm

1-800-DONT-CUT (1-800-366-8288)

Self-Injury support: call if you are self-harming or thinking about self-harm.

Sexual orientation

1-888-843-4564

Gay and Lesbian National Hotline: coming-out issues, gender identity, relationship concerns, bullying, workplace issues, HIV/AIDS anxiety and safer-sex information, and lots more!

Youth and Teens

1-866-488-7386

The Trevor Project: crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ+ young people.

1-800-448-4663

National Youth Crisis Hotline: provides 24/7 short-term counseling and referrals to local drug treatment centers, shelters, and counseling services. Responds to youth dealing with pregnancy, molestation, suicide, and child abuse.

 Mental Health

1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness: Answers questions about mental health issues. Not an emergency/counseling hotline. Provides referrals.

References

  1. “Ten Leading Causes of Death”. 25 Feb. 2016. 
  2. Parker-Pope, T. “Suicide rates rise sharply in U.S”. New York Times. 2013, May 2.
  3. “Suicide Statistics.” AFSP. 16 Apr. 2019.
  4. Carol, M. “Mental illness? Yes, but also homophobia”. The Globe and Mail. 7 Oct. 2011. 
  5. GLSEN. “The 2009 National School Climate Survey Executive Summary: Key Findings on the Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. New York”. NY: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. 2009.
  6. Coker TR, Austin SB, Schuster MA. “The health and health care of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents”. Annual Review of Public Health. 2010.
  7. Espelage DL, Aragon SR, Birkett M. “Homophobic teasing, psychological outcomes, and sexual orientation among high school students: What influence do parents and schools have?”. School Psychology Review. 2008.
  8. Schlanger, Zoë. “A Teen Health Survey Crucial to US Public Policy Is Finally Asking about Sexual Orientation”. Quartz. 26 Jun. 2017. 
  9. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health”. 12 Nov. 2014. 
  10. Birkett M, Espelage DL, Koenig B. “LGB and questioning students in schools: The moderating effects of homophobic bullying and school climate on negative outcomes”. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2009.
  11. “Risk Factors and Warning Signs”. 2016.
  12. Robinson, J. P., & Espelage, D. L. “Inequities in educational and psychological outcomes between LGBTQ and straight students in middle and high school”. Educational researcher. 2011.
  13. Pike, D. “The Gift of Positive Space Groups: A Transformation for LGBTQ Students”. Education Canada. 2012.
  14. Saewcy EM, Konishi C, Rose HA, Homma Y. “School-based strategies to reduce suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and discrimination among sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents in Western Canada”. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies. 2014.
  15. Hirsh, JS. “A scientific look at the damage parents do when they bully their gay kids”. The Washington Post. 14 Apr. 2015.
  16. Rothman EF, Sullivan M, Keyes S, Boehmer U. “Parents’ supportive reactions to sexual orientation disclosure associated with better health: results from a population-based survey of LGB adults in Massachusetts”. J Homosex. 2012. 
  17. Ryan C, Huebner D, Diaz RM, Sanchez J. “Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults”. Pediatrics Jan. 2009.
  18. Burton CL, Bonanno GA, Hatzenbuehler ML. “Familial social support predicts a reduced cortisol response to stress in sexual minority young adults”. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 27 May 2014.

Last Updated: 4 December 2019