Studies show LGBT youth attempt suicide at a disproportionately high rate; suicide among LGBT elderly may also be a problem
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recently received a $45,000 grant from the Johnson Family Foundation to develop a project to reduce suicide and suicidal behavior in the LGBT community.
Studies over the last two decades indicate a disproportionately high rate of suicide among LGBT adolescents and young adults.
"There is increasing evidence that LGBT individuals, especially youth, have higher rates of suicide attempts as compared to heterosexuals of the same ages," said Andrew Lane, executive director of JFF, a New York-based group that operates grantmaking programs for environmental and LGBT issues. "Significant efforts must be undertaken to reduce suicide behavior and risk among LGBT people."
But Ann Haas, Ph.D., director of suicide prevention projects for New York-based AFSP, said, "There really are no official statistics. That’s a big factor that hampers understanding and promotes not doing anything about it."
She said much of the information available about suicide in the LGBT community is anecdotal. Other data comes from self-reported suicide attempts.
While government-funded studies have required collecting gender and racial and ethnic data, they have not required gathering information about sexual orientation or gender identity, often for political reasons.
Haas notes a number of factors contribute to the high rate of suicide and suicide attempts in the LGBT community. Rejection by families and the difficulty parents have in coming to terms with their children’s sexuality are major factors.
Bullying by peers, harassment and intimidation compound familial rejection and produce higher rates of depression and anxiety than in the general population. As a means of coping, LGBT youth use drugs and alcohol at higher rates than other youth. Both drugs and alcohol are factors in suicide themselves.
Haas said that suicide rates have decreased where prevention programs are in place.
"Even among ethnic and religious families, they can be taught they don’t have to change their values, but can learn behavior that doesn’t put their child at risk," she said.
Research by Caitlin Ryan that was published in the journal Pediatrics found that not only parental acceptance, but simple neutrality, toward a child’s sexual orientation has a big impact on reducing the rate of suicide attempts. That study also confirms the high rate of suicide attempts by gay and lesbian adolescents and young adults.
Other groups within the LGBT community are disproportionately affected by suicide as well. AFSP is set to do some work with SAGE, an advocacy group for senior gays and lesbians, to determine the extent of the problem in that community.
Elderly gays and lesbians can be very isolated with little family support.
Haas said, "Transgender youth have a very high rate of suicidal behavior. We just don’t understand it because we have no studies."
But she said the rate "is even more elevated" than among gay and lesbian youth and young adults.
Research in the late 1980s and early ’90s indicates a high rate of suicide among those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Once drugs to control the virus were developed in the late 1990s, Haas said, "the issue dropped off the radar. We have no idea how it’s playing out and affecting their lives now."
She points to the importance of universal health care as a means of lowering the suicide rate. A study in Hungary, the country with the highest rate of suicide in the world, found that a large number of deaths occurred among alcoholics who do not visit their doctor. Those who regularly receive medical care are less likely to commit suicide than those who do not.
Correlating that to the LGBT community in the United States, Haas said that while about 7 percent of the general population is without health insurance, 20 to 25 percent of the LGBT population lacks coverage.
In a story that ran recently in the Chicago Tribune, one man whose partner committed suicide said that had he been allowed to add his partner to his policy, he might have gotten the intervention and treatment needed to prevent his suicide.
Haas said the AFSP is "trying to help LGBT organizations know what we know and what we don’t know about suicide and make it part of the agenda."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 14, 2009.