LGBT Students Remain Suicide Risks Despite Changing Attitude & Laws
Teen suicide is a serious problem, but among LGBT youth, it has been catastrophic. Although reliable statistics that break out LGBT students are hard to come by, advocates point to anecdotal evidence, news reports and their own experience in the field to highlight the seriousness of the problem.
So, in a age when "That's so gay" is becoming not cool, and there is a growing acceptance of gay, lesbian and even transgendered students, is it getting better?
It is certainly true that, despite discrepancies across ethnic, geographic and economic strata, overall, today's high school experiences are radically different--and generally better than--they have ever been. Viewing only the presence of gay youth in media and Gay/Straight Student Alliances, one might easily come to the conclusion that growing up gay is much easier than it was.
The whole picture, however, presents more nuanced shadings than that. Those experiencing high school as well as researchers in the field of teen suicide see the picture as improving--but with some deep fissures remaining in place.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan heads San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project , a community research, intervention and education initiative that studies the impact of family acceptance and rejection on the health, mental health and well being of LGBT youth.
FAP's recent findings show LGBT "young adults whose families were highly rejective [sic] of their identity during adolescence were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide at least once, compared with those who received no or low levels of family rejection during adolescence."
The project, culled from research conducted over the past seven years, is the first of its kind to create prevention efforts based on hard states gleaned from family situations. The study looked at how gay teens fared in being accepted or rejected by their families. "Our findings related to suicide were shocking across ethnic groups," says Ryan.
Interviews with families (Chinese and Spanish, as well as English), showed parents who, when presented with the results, were "shocked to think what they were doing with their children would make them feel so bad about themselves that they would like to take their own life."
Lack of Studies = Lack of Funds
FAP stands out in contrast to existing studies and points to a crucial information gap. Youth Risk Behavior surveys conducted by several states and a biannual national survey by the Center for Disease Control don't query sexual orientation, or how bullying and harassment contributes to suicidal thoughts or attempts among LGBT teens.
This Achilles heel in the CDC's statistics is well known among researchers, who complain of the lack of a clear national picture of the problem. All that would be academic were it not that clear stats are needed before legislatures or governmental agencies will commit funding.
Ryan describes the CDC survey as "very political in terms of what questions are included." Adding questions about sexual orientation would be a positive step, but "what happens at the state and local level is not just a question of politics, it's also a question of space. When something is added to a survey, something is changed or taken away."
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (in collaboration with the CDC) conducted its own Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Its 2005 results found that gay teens had suicide rates nearly double those of their peers. They hurt themselves on purpose at three times the rate of other teens. They were four times more likely to attempt suicide in the past year.
Although specific only to the situation in Massachusetts, the results are useful tools in the effort to lobby for and receive state and city level funding for preventative programs targeting LGBT teens.
Joe Kosciw, research director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, says that states mirror the national gap in providing comprehensive LGBT suicide information. GLSN's own 2007 National School Climate Survey found only 11 states and the District of Columbia protecting students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, and only seven states and DC protecting gay or trans students.
"Younger students are reporting more harassment," Kosciw says. "It's more common in middle school than the older grades. Even in the higher grades, most of our students, a high incident of harassment and assault."
What Can Be Done
GLSN uses the results of its survey to encourage schools to create "safe schools" and anti-bullying policies. "That demonstrates to the school community that this is an issue they need to take seriously," according to a GLSN statement. "You may or may not be able to change people's hearts and minds, but you can the behavior. Diversity initiatives and interventions allow for the under sting of and exposure to different people and cultures."
Linda Goldman, author of "Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well-Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society", advocates for educating children when they're very young, about five or six. It's then, she says, that "they are learning that everyone needs to be respected--not when kids are 12 or 13." Before adolescence is the time, she says, to target them with the message that "everyone is unique and different and no one rally fits perfectly to society's stereotyping of what boys and girls should say, do, or wear."
That effort would take a lot of hard work in any circumstances. That's why it's crucial for school administrators to understand that when kids are teased or feel different or are keeping a secret, they quit learning. Equally important is impressing on everyone "from the bus driver to the woman who works in the cafeterias," she adds, "to let them know what to do when they hear a kid being bullied and teased and to be sure there's an administration that will back them up with consequences. If kids don't know there will be consequences for harrassment, it will keep going on."