Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are much more likely to
commit suicide than their heterosexual peers, research has shown, but a new study suggests that a supportive school and community might be able to reduce that risk, if only slightly, for both groups.
Researchers from Columbia University analyzed a survey of 31,852 Oregon 11th-graders in which the students were asked, among other things, about their sexual orientation, drinking habits, and whether they had attempted suicide. The researchers also scored 34 of Oregon’s 36 counties on how supportive of gays and lesbians the environment was based on the proportion of same-sex couples in the community; the proportion of registered Democrats in the community; whether schools had gay-straight alliances; and whether schools had anti-bullying and antidiscrimination policies specifically protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual students.
In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers confirmed that homosexual and bisexual students were far more likely to attempt suicide than their classmates—nearly 22% compared with 4%, a tragic gap researchers already knew existed. But they also found that among gay, lesbian and bisexual students the risk of suicide attempts was about 25% greater in negative environments than in supportive ones —25.5% of non-heterosexual students had tried to commit suicide at least once in negative environments compared with 20.4% in positive environments. *
Negative environments were associated with suicide attempts in non-heterosexual students even after adjusting for known suicide risks such as depression, alcohol use, and past physical abuse by an adult.
The researchers wrote in their conclusion: “The social environment appears to confer risk for suicide attempts over and above individual-level risk factors. These results have important implications for the development of policies and interventions to reduce sexual orientation–related disparities in suicide attempts. “
The study doesn’t conclude that a community’s so-called supportive characteristics, such as anti-bullying policies in schools, decrease suicide attempts, says Brett Thombs, a researcher in psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal who was not involved in the research but who has studied suicide risk in non-heterosexual youth.
“I think there are many reasons schools should provide better environments for any kid, not just LGBT kids,” says Thombs. “Whether or not they would change suicide risk is a different question. The schools may be reflecting the community around them.”
Positive environments seem to offer a slight protective benefit to heterosexual students as well, as it turns out. They were 9% more likely to attempt suicide in so-called negative environments than they were in more positive environments.
The study doesn’t answer whether adopting anti-bulling policies could be as effective in schools where the community is unsupportive of gays and lesbians. A large randomized trial, where some schools adopt accepting policies and others don’t, could better answer that question.
But that could take a while to do. And teenage years are short.
* For the record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the risk of suicide (instead of suicide attempts) was about 20% greater (instead of about 25% greater) in negative environments than in supportive ones.