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Teen Suicide Attempts Tied to Social Environment

A negative social environment may increase risk for suicide attempts by lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teenagers.

April 18, 2011 -- A negative social environment may increase risk for suicide attempts by lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teenagers.

A new study shows the risk of suicide attempts among LGB teens is 20% higher in communities that are less supportive of homosexuality than in supportive social environments.

Heterosexual teens living in supportive social environments also reported 9% fewer suicide attempts than teens in unsupportive environments.

"The results of this study are pretty compelling," researcher Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, PhD, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, says in a news release. "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."

Researchers say the results suggest the social environment appears to influence teen suicide attempts in a way that is over and above individual risk factors.

"Previous studies have documented several factors that increase the risk for suicide attempts among LGB youth, including depression, peer victimization, hazardous alcohol use, and physical abuse by an adult," Hatzenbuehler writes in the journal Pediatrics. "Even after adjusting for these individual level risk factors, the social environment was associated with suicide attempts."

Social Environment Tied to Teen Suicide Risk

For the study, researchers anonymously surveyed 31,852 Oregon high school students in the 11th grade.

In line with previous studies, the results showed gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens were more than five times as likely to have attempted suicide in the past 12 months as their heterosexual peers. For example, nearly 20% of lesbian and gay and 22% of bisexual youths attempted suicide at least once in the last 12 months, compared with 4% of heterosexuals.

But when researchers looked at suicide attempts in 34 individual counties, they found LGB teens living in counties that were less supportive of homosexuality reported 20% more suicide attempts. Heterosexual teens also reported 9% more suicide attempts in less supportive social environments.

Indicators of supportive social environments included:

  • Percentage of same-sex couples
  • Percentage of registered Democrats
  • Presence of gay-straight alliances in schools
  • Anti-bullying and antidiscrimination policies in schools that specifically protected lesbian, gay, and bisexual students

"This study shows that the creation of school climates that are good for gay youth can lead to better health outcomes for all young people," Hatzenbuehler says in the release.

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