A new study, published in JAMA, investigates suicide risk for sexual minority adolescents in the United States. The data was obtained throughout the year 2015, when suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 15-34 and the third highest cause for those 10-14 years of age. The results confirm that sexual minority adolescents are at a higher risk of considering, planning, or attempting suicide than their heterosexual peers. The researchers, Caputi, Smith, and Ayers, acknowledge the diversity within the LGBTQ community and distinguish risk behaviors among these distinct identities.
“By subgroup, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning adolescents were all at elevated risk for suicide relative to heterosexuals. For instance, bisexuals were more likely to consider, plan, or attempt suicide than heterosexuals,” they write. “Differences persisted after stratifying by sex.”
This pattern emerged for every sexual minority subgroup. Caputi et al. continue, “Of lesbians, 40% considered suicide versus 19.6% of heterosexual females, and, of gay males, 25.5% considered suicide compared with 10.6% of heterosexual males.
The potential causes of elevated suicide thoughts, plans, or attempts for sexual minority groups are often linked to elevated levels of discrimination, rejection by family and friends, or violence. Studies find that destigmatizing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning identities can reduce the risk for suicide. The present study provides more data for researchers and policy makers seeking evidence-based methods for reducing teen suicide, particularly for sexual minority adolescents.
Through online questionnaires, the researchers disseminated the 2015 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a 3-stage cluster sample that reaches counties from every state, schools within those counties, and classrooms within those schools, in order to preserve a representative sample of American high school students. The students reported their sexual orientation and answered if, in the past year, they had “(1) seriously considered suicide, (2) planned suicide, or (3) attempted suicide.”
The results for sexual minority students were striking:
- 40% having seriously considered suicide compared with 14.8% reported by heterosexual students
- 35.9% having planned suicide as opposed to 11.9% of their heterosexual peers
- Nearly one-quarter having attempted suicide alongside 6.3% of heterosexual students
The study is limited by its lack of data on the suicide risks among transgender adolescents, but previous studies suggest that up to half of the trans population may have previously attempted suicide. The researchers also recognize that the 60% response rate may limit the generalizability of their results. More research that includes trans adolescents and a more consistent response rate is warranted.
Caputi, Smith, and Ayers conclude with a call for action among policy makers, clinicians, and caretakers in order to address the heightened risk of suicide behaviors among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning adolescents:
“The substantial suicide risks among sexual minorities merits a comprehensive reaction. Policy makers should invest in research to understand and prevent suicide among sexual minorities. Clinicians should discuss sexual orientation with patients, and allocate appropriate mental health resources. Caretakers should watch for signs of suicide risk behaviors among sexual minority adolescents, and seek supportive help when warranted.”
Caputi T.L., Smith D., Ayers J.W. (2017) Suicide risk behaviors among sexual minority adolescents in the United States, 2015. JAMA 318(23):2349–2351. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.16908 (Link)