Gay-Friendly Communities Are Good for Straight Teens Too

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A spate of suicides involving gay teens last fall reignited concern among youth activists and health experts over the disproportionately high rate of suicide among gay American teens. Now, a survey of high-school students in Oregon highlights a key risk factor for suicide — living in a socially and politically conservative area — not only among lesbian, gay and bisexual teens, but in heterosexual kids too.

The survey of nearly 32,000 11th-graders found that suicide attempts by lesbian, gay and bisexual teens were 20% more likely in conservative communities that were unsupportive of gays — areas with fewer same-sex couples, fewer registered Democrats, and schools that lacked gay-straight alliances or policies against bullying gay students — compared with communities that scored high on the researchers’ “social index.” That difference in risk persisted, even after researchers accounted for other suicide risk factors such as depression and bullying.

What’s more, the rate of suicide attempts among straight teens in conservative communities was also higher — by 9% — than in areas that were more politically and socially liberal. The finding suggests that widespread acceptance and support contribute to the well-being of all community members, not just those who identify with minority groups.

“The results of this study are pretty compelling,” said the study’s lead investigator, Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in a statement. “When communities support their gay young people, and schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempted suicide by all young people drops, especially for LGB youth.”

Still, according to the 2006-08 survey, gay teens were much more likely to have attempted suicide in the last year than their straight peers: among gay teens, the attempted suicide rate was a whopping 21.5% overall — five times higher than among straight teens.

The AP reported:

Michael Resnick, a professor of adolescent mental health at the University of Minnesota’s medical school, said the study “certainly affirms what we’ve come to understand about children and youth in general. They are both subtly and profoundly affected by what goes around them,” he said, including the social climate and perceived support.

The current survey is the first to score communities on social factors and tie that to suicide rates in teens. Last year, a study by the Family Acceptance Project came to similar conclusions, except on a narrower scale. That study looked at supportive behaviors within families, rather than in communities at large, and linked them with gay teens’ suicide rates. Healthland’s Alice Park reported:

Based on in depth interviews with families and children who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, the researchers collected a list of 55 positive behaviors and a similar number of negative behaviors that volunteers were then asked to rate based on the frequency with which they experienced them.

Positive behaviors included, for example, anything from openly discussing the child’s sexual orientation to participating as a family in gay, lesbian or bisexual events, while negative behaviors included not discussing the child’s sexual identity at all, or keeping it secret from family and friends.

When Ryan’s team compared the responses of those in supportive versus less accepting families, they found that teens in the more nurturing families had nearly half the rate of suicide attempts during a designated six-month study period as those in less supportive households. These youngsters also scored lower on a scale designed to assess depression, and were less likely to report substance abuse in the five years prior to the study.

The current findings were published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.