Suicide and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth
by Paul Cody, Ph.D.
Suicide is almost always a desperate act by someone who feels helpless and hopeless. Suicidal feelings and thoughts are a frequent symptom of depression. As a society, we feel shocked and questioning when someone we know kills herself or himself. We feel that we want to do whatever we can to prevent another such tragedy.
It has been only in the last decade that there has been recognition that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth (generally defined as ages 15-24) are at an increased risk of suicide compared to other youth. A growing body of research literature has provided the estimate that gays, lesbians, and bisexual youth attempt suicide at a rate 2-3 times higher than their heterosexual peers. Some studies indicate that the rate of attempted suicide for transgender youth is higher than 50%. It is also estimated that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth comprise 30% of completed suicides, with transgender youth also having a high incidence of completed suicides. These studies are not documenting only a recent phenomenon; some are retrospective studies, interviewing older members of these minority groups and finding high rates for attempted and completed suicide during these individuals' youth decades ago. It is only the attention to this problem that is recent.
Sexual and gender minority youth are at a high risk of suicide largely because of societal and developmental factors. This age period is when all people face the developmental tasks of finding their identity and establishing sexual/emotional intimacy in relationships. Our society fosters, nurtures, and channels these tasks for heterosexual youth. Implicitly and explicitly, heterosexual youth have their feelings, identities, and relationships acknowledged and validated. In general, our society is a perilous wasteland for sexual and gender minority youth. It is a wasteland because the resources that might help them in the developmental tasks of finding identity and establishing intimacy are nonexistent in most places, scarce in others. It is perilous because there are real dangers to their emotional and physical well-being which they must try to navigate. Harassment, threats of violence, and physical/sexual assaults by peers and family are frequently experienced by sexual and gender minority youth. Even more ubiquitous are the slurs, insults, and jokes regarding this population which color their environment and make it an even greater challenge for them to come to love themselves and have good self-esteem. Most of them do not possess the internal and external resources nor the autonomy that come with greater age to help them through these struggles with their environment. The internalized self-hatred and resulting pain for sexual and gender minority youth contribute to a higher risk of abusing alcohol and other drugs as a means of numbing those feelings.
There are several things that can help reduce the suicide risk factors for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. All of us can make a commitment to making the environment a safer place for them. Heterosexuals who read this can do a lot. Stop laughing at or ignoring the bigoted jokes and insults that are frequently made about sexual and gender minorities. Go a step further and confront those who make these remarks, telling them that you do not find them appropriate. Additionally, you can continue your own education about all sorts of people who are different than you, including sexual and gender minorities. Open your mind and your heart further. Communicate your caring to those around you. Support the struggles of this population to obtain the same basic civil rights you have, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Older gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people who read this can remember how difficult our own experience was when young. Frequently we may want to put that behind us because of the painfulness of remembering it even still. We cannot afford to do that as our youth are in those hells now. Commit or recommit yourself to being as out as you can be, being proud, and reaching out to the youth who need our support. Remember that our lives are only as good as they are because of those who came before us in this struggle. What will you do for those who come after us?
Sexual and gender minority youth who have felt or are feeling suicidal I ask not to give in to those helpless and hopeless feelings. I know from personal experience how it can seem that things will never get better, no one will accept you for who you are, and maybe you aren't sure you like you for who you are. As someone who made it through, I can say that the fears, when kept to yourself, are worse than the reality. Look around you and find some person that you feel you can trust to tell your feelings to, someone who has expressed a caring and accepting attitude. It might be a family member or friend. It might be a professor or hall director or RA or minister. If it feels too risky to speak to any of these people, contact the Counseling Center. We care and want to be a support to you. As someone who survived his own gay adolescence, I want you to know that life gets better, so hold on to life and reach out for help.
Last Updated: 19 April 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD