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The suicide rates among lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth in America are startling and troubling. Around 25%-40% of LGB youth seriously consider suicide each year, with many of them making attempts or actually killing themselves. Many of them say they feel disconnected from friends, family and school classmates. However, many LGB youth indicate that when they have social supports in place they are less likely to consider suicide.

One of those social supports is a Gay-Straight-Alliance (see https://gsanetwork.org/
for more information). GSAs have sprung up across the nation in high schools. Youth of any sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression are welcome to this safe place where any issue can be raised from the mundane questions (class assignments) to safety concerns (e.g., bullying, harassment), to identity questions.

We’d like to share a very important research investigation from 2006-2008 that was published in 2011. Sadly most professionals working with youth missed this study because was it was published in the prestigious but hard to access journal Pediatrics.

Mark L. Hatzenbuehler (2011) used the “Oregon Healthy Teens Survey” to conduct his investigation with over 31,000 11th grade students in Oregon. He studied connections between sexual orientation, social connectivity and suicide attempts.

Prominent findings:

• Overall, LGB youth were much more likely to attempt suicide in the previous 12 months than heterosexual youth (21.5% vs. 4.2%)
• LGB youth were 20% more likely to attempt suicide if they lived in area that did not have access to a supportive environment
• National rates of suicide attempts among heterosexual youth is around 6%
• When LGB youth had regular access to Gay-Straight-Alliances or similar support organizations, their suicide attempt rates dropped to levels similar to heterosexual peers, around 6%

Takeaways:

• Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more at risk for suicidal ideation and attempts.
• Although not studied here, we know from other studies that transgender-identified (T) and questioning (Q) students are at even higher risk for self harm and suicide than LGB youth.
• One valuable national resource for LGBTQ-identified youth is the Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org .
• If you regularly work with LGBTQ youth in substitute care, please investigate whether your youths’ high schools have a GSA in place and if not, please ask the School Psychologist, Principal, Teacher, or other school official to put one in place. This investigation demonstrated rather dramatically than GSAs are extremely important in lowering suicide risk among sexual minority youth.

Original article citation: Hatzenbuehler, M. L. (2011). The social environment and suicide attempts in lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Pediatrics, 127(5).

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Dr. Chris Downs has devoted much of his professional career to improving services and outcomes for older, at-risk youth. Chris is President of The Downs Group LLC, based in Seattle and has the pleasure of working with many talented professionals in child welfare and allied areas including his company Associates.