A spate of suicides involving gay teens last fall reignited concern among youth activists and health experts over the disproportionately high rate of suicide among gay American teens. Now, a survey of high-school students in Oregon highlights a key risk factor for suicide — living in a socially and politically conservative area — not only among lesbian, gay and bisexual teens, but in heterosexual kids too.
The survey of nearly 32,000 11th-graders found that suicide attempts by lesbian, gay and bisexual teens were 20% more likely in conservative communities that were unsupportive of gays — areas with fewer same-sex couples, fewer registered Democrats, and schools that lacked gay-straight alliances or policies against bullying gay students — compared with communities that scored high on the researchers’ “social index.” That difference in risk persisted, even after researchers accounted for other suicide risk factors such as depression and bullying.
What’s more, the rate of suicide attempts among straight teens in conservative communities was also higher — by 9% — than in areas that were more politically and socially liberal. The finding suggests that widespread acceptance and support contribute to the well-being of all community members, not just those who identify with minority groups.
“The results of this study are pretty compelling,” said the study’s lead investigator, Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in a statement. “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.”
Still, according to the 2006-08 survey, gay teens were much more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year than their straight peers: among gay teens, the attempted suicide rate was a whopping 21.5% overall — five times higher than among straight teens.