Who can help reduce suicide among lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents?

If you’ve been reading the news recently, you’ve seen that a string of suicides by gay teens has been ripping across the nation. Billy Lucas, 15, hung himself after being bullied for years about his sexuality. Asher Brown, 13, died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds after enduring constant harassment at his middle school.  A recent survey suggests LGB teens are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to have attempted suicide[i], and such findings are nothing new.

That’s the bad news.

Now, here’s the good news. Because suicide rates among LGB teens have been high for so long, a fair bit of research has addressed the issue of what factors protect LGB students from feeling like death is the only good option.  Here’s what we know:

Why LGB teens are in pain:

LGB teens are routinely harassed and threatened by their peers. Over 80% of LGB youth report being verbally harassed and close to half report being threatened by peers.[ii]

Harassment based on sexuality is particularly harsh and damaging to adolescents. In a sample of high school boys, bullying based on perceived gay identity was more frequent and the victims experienced higher anxiety and depression than victims of other types of bullying.[iii]

School support staff don’t always know how to help. While many school psychologists and counselors feel it is their obligation to help LGB youth, they often don’t feel prepared for that task.[iv]


What and who can help?

Parent support matters. Family support protects LGB adolescents from the mental health damage normally caused by victimization.[v]

Friends matter. Adolescents who reported losing friends because of their sexual orientation were three times more likely to attempt suicide than those who had not.[vi]

Adults in school can help. LGB students who felt they had an adult at school they could talk to about a problem were three times less likely to have made multiple suicide attempts in the previous year.[vii]

Anti-bullying policies are important. In schools with anti-bullying policies, LGB teens committed suicide less often, regardless of level of personal harassment or perceived support by adults at school.[viii]

The psychology research is clear. The teachers, principals, parents and peers of LGB adolescents can make a real difference by offering their support. The question that remains is simple: Will you help?

[i] Eisenberg, M. & Resnick, M. (2006). Suicidality among gay, lesbian and bisexual youth: The role of protective factors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 39, 662-668.

[ii] Hershberger, S. L. & D’Augelli, A. R. (1995). The impact of victimization on the mental health and suicidality of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. Developmental Psychology, 31(1), 65-74.

[iii] Swearer S. M., Turner, R. K., Givens, J. E. and Pollack, W. S. (2008). “You’re so gay!”: Do different forms of bullying matter for adolescent males? School Psychology Review, 37(2), 160-173.

[iv] Sawyer, R. (2001, August). Findings from an assessment of school counseling, health, and mental health professionals. In J.D. Porter (Chair), Addressing Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adolescent Health and Mental Health in Schools. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco.

[v] Hershberger & D’Augelli (1995).

[vi] Hershberger, S.L.,  Pilkington, N.W., and D’Augelli, A. R. (1997). Predictors of suicide attempts among gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 12(4), 477-497.

[vii] Goodenow, C., Szalacha, L. & Westheimer, K. (2006). School support groups, other school factors, and the safety of sexual minority adolescents. Psychology in the Schools, 43(5), 573-589.

[viii] Ibid.


2 thoughts on “Who can help reduce suicide among lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents?

  1. I agree that support from teachers and parents is crucial for LGBT teens, but I also think that celebrity role models are invaluable. I respect and am grateful to people like Ellen Degeneres and Kristanna Loken for being so open and proud of who they are. Loken supposedly did a great job in Attack on Darfur, and the film will hopefully boost her popularity and strengthen her voice as a figurehead for the gay community.

  2. Hi Anna-
    I agree with you about the importance of supportive celebrities in general, though I don’t know that I see them as playing a major role in preventing suicide. While I absolutely believe that celebrities can have important social impact (such as when they encourage people to support causes), I don’t know how relevant that is to the adolescent who is struggling with suicide. I would actually think that LGBT adults in that adolescent’s community would be the more obvious role models–they might be easier for the teen to identify with. On the other hand, for a lot of teens, there are no visible community role models, making the celebrity role models very valuable.

    You bring up a great area for future research–to my knowledge, there isn’t research yet on how having LGBT role models of any sort affects an adolescent’s likelihood of suicide. I would be particularly interested in knowing whether just knowing an LGBT adult makes the difference, or whether the adolescent must be more closely connected (e.g., a mentorship relationship) to reap the benefits.

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