What protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths from considering suicide and, conversely, what makes them most vulnerable to it? The question is of paramount concern because these youths are at least twice as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youths, prompting the national "It Gets Better Project" with encouraging video messages from such public figures as Lady Gaga and President Barack Obama.
We recently published the first longitudinal study to look at suicide ideation and self-harm in this population and we found that support from friends and family offers the most protection in preventing youth from thinking about suicide. Adolescents who know they can talk to their parents about problems and know they have friends who care about them are less likely to consider ending their lives.
Adolescents most likely to consider killing themselves and engage in self-harm behaviors are those who are harassed and bullied for being gay. Unfortunately, about 94% of LGBT youths have had at least one experience in which people said cruel things to them, spit on them, destroyed their property and threatened or assaulted them—all related to them being gay, according to some of our prior research.
Suicidal thoughts are a key predictor of a suicide attempt. Cutting behaviors also are a risk factor. Previous studies of LGBT adolescents have primarily looked at their risk of making suicide attempts as compared to heterosexual youth, rather than predictors that make them vulnerable to it or protect them from it. Our research shows how critical it is for these young people to have social support and for schools to have programs to reduce bullying.
I published this study, along with my co-Author Dr. Richard Liu, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. For the 2 1/2-year study, 246 LGBT youths, ages 16 to 20 at enrollment, were interviewed at five time points, six months apart. Other important risk factors included hopelessness, being female, and having made a past suicide attempt.
Below is a video describing the study and our findings.
I recommend the following resources for families and schools. PFLAG: Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays offers programs to teach parents and friends how to be supportive of their gay children and peers. We also have resources for parents on the IMPACT Program webpage, including expert videos with advice for how to react when a child comes out. The Safe Schools Coalition, the Gay Straight Alliance Network, and GLSEN are resources for reducing bullying in schools.
Dr. Mustanski is the Director of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. You can follow the Sexual Continuum blog by becoming a fan on Facebook. I periodically live tweet from research conferences on sexuality and you can follow me @sexualcontinuum