Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Youth Suicide
By Laurie Lindop
Reprinted with permission
"Someday, maybe, there will exist a well-informed, well-considered, and yet fervent public conviction that the most deadly of all possible sins is the mutilation of a child's spirit." Erik Erikson
"This issue is not about a 'different' way of life; it is about life itself. I know that every teacher and every parent in this Commonwealth fundamentally agrees that no young person — gay or straight — should be driven to take her or his life because of isolation and abuse. This is a tragedy we must all work together to prevent. We can take the first step toward ending gay youth suicide by creating an atmosphere of dignity and respect for these young people in our schools.
Governor William F. Weld, speaking at a Gay and Lesbian Youth Commission Teacher Training, Arlington Street Church, June 30, 1993.
Overall Youth Suicides
Suicide among adolescents is a national and statewide tragedy. The Massachusetts Department of Education asked more than 3,000 students in 1994 to answer questions anonymously and found that 10 percent had attempted suicide compared with 6 percent in 1990, 20 percent "made plans" to commit suicide compared with 14 percent in 1990. 3.4 percent required medical treatment as a result of a suicide attempt.
- Adolescent suicide has increased threefold in the last 10 years, making it the second most frequent cause of death among youths aged 15-24 (10 per 100,000 deaths per year).
- The incidence of suicide among adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 had jumped from 2.7 per 100,000 in 1950 to 9.3 in 1982. The incidence of youth suicide stands at 11.3 per 100,000 today. It is estimated that suicide attempts are 40 to 100 times more common than completed suicides.
- An additional 500,000 youths of all sexual orientations attempt suicide annually.
Suicides among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, & Transgender Youth
In 1989, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued its "Report on the Secretary's Task Force on Youth Suicide," which found that "A majority of suicide attempts by homosexuals occur during their youth, and gay youth are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. They may comprise up to 30 percent of (the estimated 5,000) completed youth suicides annually.
The report recommended that "mental health and youth service agencies can provide acceptance and support for young homosexuals, train their personnel on gay issues, and provide appropriate gay adult role models; schools can protect gay youth from abuse from their peers and provide accurate information about homosexuality in health curricula; families should accept their child and work toward educating themselves about the development and nature of homosexuality."
According to Kevin Berrill, Director of the Anti-Violence Project of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at the time of the report's release stated, "The increased risk of suicide facing these youth is linked to growing up in a society that teaches them to hide and to hate themselves. We welcome this report and hope it will lead to action that will save lives."
Initially, however, the report was suppressed by the Bush administration under pressure from right-wing groups and by conservatives in Congress. After the findings, William Dannemeyer, who was at the time a conservative Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California, called for then-president Bush to "dismiss from public service all persons still employed who concocted this homosexual pledge of allegiance and sealed the lid on these misjudgments for good." HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan wrote in a letter to Dannemeyer that the study "undermined the institution of the family."
The findings of the report were leaked to the press and finally released. Other studies confirm these findings. Gary Remafedi, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Minnesota, and author of Death by Denial: Studies of Attempted and Completed Suicide in Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual Youth, found in a 1991 study of 150 gay and lesbian youths in Minneapolis, more than 30% said they had attempted suicide at least once as a teenager.
The youths who are at the greatest risk for suicide are the ones who are least likely to reveal their sexual orientation to anyone. Suicide may be a way of making sure that no one ever knows. It's homophobia that's killing these kids.
Remafedi confirmed a 30% suicide rate among gay and bisexual youth, and also found that young men with more "feminine gender role characteristics" and those who recognized their same-sex orientation at an early age and acted on those sexual feelings seem to face the highest risk of self-destructive behavior. The mean age in this sample at the time of the suicide attempts was 15 1/2 years. Ingestion of prescription and/or nonprescription drugs and self-laceration accounted for 80% of the attempts. Twenty-one percent of the suicide attempts resulted in medical or psychiatric hospitalization, but almost 3 out of 4 attempts did not receive any medical attention. One-third of the first attempts occurred in the same year that subjects identified their bisexuality or homosexuality, and most other attempts happened soon thereafter. Family problems were the most frequently cited reason for attempts. Eighty-five percent of the attempters reported illicit drug use and 22% had undergone chemical dependency treatment.
The earlier a young person is aware of a gay or lesbian orientation, the greater the problems they may face and may be more likely at risk of suicidal feelings and behavior.
Younger gay adolescents may be at the highest risk for dysfunction because of emotional and physical immaturity, unfulfilled developmental needs for identification with a peer group, lack of experience, and dependence on parents unwilling or unable to provide emotional support. Younger gay adolescents are also more likely to abuse substances, drop out of school, be in conflict with the law, undergo psychiatric hospitalization, run away from home, be involved in prostitution, and attempt suicide.
Pollak found that nearly all gay and lesbian suicides occur between the ages of 16 and 21.
The fear of AIDS adds to the anxiety gay youths experience. According to Joyce Hunter, Behavioral Researcher at the New York State Psychiatry Institute's HIV Center in New York City:
Gay teenagers already have so much to deal with that when they find out they are HIV-positive or even that they are going to have to live in a world where HIV is prevalent and a constant threat, they become overwhelmed. It's just another factor that can add to their suicidal thoughts.
In February 1992, Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld signed an executive order establishing the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, taken, in large part over concerns for the high incidence of suicide among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens.
Last Updated: 14 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD