A study published last month in JAMA Pediatrics demonstrated a 7% reduction in suicide attempts for teens in states that had legalized same-sex marriage. For gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, the reduction in suicide attempts was even greater—averaging 14%. For states that did not legalize same-sex marriage, there was no change in suicide rate. The researchers write:
“We estimated that, each year, same-sex marriage policies would be associated with more than 134,000 fewer adolescents attempting suicide.”
In 2015, suicide was the second leading cause of death for ages 15-34 behind accidents, and the third highest for ages 10-14, behind accidents and homicide. There have been few evidence-based methods for reducing teen suicide, making this new study particularly powerful.
The study was conducted before same-sex marriage was legalized at the federal level, but its results are more relevant than ever, given current debate about other protections for gender and sexual minorities. The data suggests that policies that protect and destigmatize the identities of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people serve to prevent suicide and save the lives of children and adolescents. The researchers theorize that having equal rights and civil liberties increase feelings of hope and acceptance for marginalized people, decreasing suicidality.
In the current political climate, however, policies are being built to increase discrimination and stigma. For instance, on February 22, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos revoked guidance for schools regarding their obligation to transgender students. This comes at a time when nearly 50% of transgender people attempt suicide—a figure correlated with the amount of discrimination, violence, and rejection they face on a daily basis.
Other studies have found that doctors and other health professionals refuse treatment for gender and sexual minorities. Statistics show that 8% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and 27% of transgender people report being denied health care outright, resulting in severe health consequences, and even death. Additionally, researchers have found that gender and sexual minorities experience poorer health outcomes in a number of domains, all of which are correlated with stress stemming from experiences of discrimination.
A limitation of this study is that the researchers could only gather self-reported data regarding suicide attempts, as it is notoriously difficult to measure completed suicide. However, estimates indicate that for youths, 1 person completes a suicide for every 25 attempts—so the researchers estimate that over 5300 lives are saved each year by same-sex marriage legalization.
This research suggests that same-sex marriage laws are part of a culture that helps adolescents feel safer and less stigmatized. Policies that reduce discrimination reduce the risk of suicide attempts for adolescents.
Raifman, J., Moscoe, E., Austin, B., & McConnell, M. (2017). Difference-in-differences analysis of the association between state same-sex marriage policies and adolescent suicide attempts. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online February 20, 2017. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.4529 (Abstract)