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Suicide rates fall among gay youth but still outpace straight peers

A study looking at teen suicide rates between 2009 and 2017 found non-heterosexual young people were more than three times as likely to attempt suicide.

Youth suicide rates are dropping in the U.S., but the proportion of teens who have suicidal thoughts or make an attempt remains consistently higher among sexual minorities than among heterosexual young people, two new studies in Pediatrics suggest.

One study looked at suicide rates among teens between 2009 and 2017 and found young people who didn’t identify as heterosexual were more than three times as likely as those who did to attempt suicide. A second study looked at this same connection from 1995 to 2017 and found suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts were all more common among sexual-minority youth.

“Numerous studies going back to the late 1990s have consistently shown that sexual minority youth are about three times more likely to report making a suicide attempt,” said Brian Mustanski, co-author of an editorial accompanying both studies, and director of the Northwestern Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing in Chicago.

“The fact that societal acceptance for the LGBTQ community has improved significantly in the past decades raises the important question of (whether) these disparities in suicide attempt have shrunk over time,” Mustanski said by email. “The two studies . . . are some of the first to show that sexual orientation disparities in suicide attempts have not been shrinking over time.”

Adolescence is a time of sexual and social development when many young people may begin to recognize or express attraction to people of the same sex or identify with a gender other than their sex assigned at birth. While the risk of mental health disorders, suicide, substance misuse and other health problems spikes during adolescence, the risk can be even more pronounced for sexual minority youth, both teams of researchers note in their reports.

One of the studies, led by Julia Raifman of Boston University School of Public Health, examined almost a decade of data from youth in 10 states in the Northeast and Midwest.

During this time, the proportion of youth identifying as sexual minorities nearly doubled, from 7.3% in 2009 to 14.3% in 2017. Over the same period, the proportion of youth who reported any same-sex sexual contact climbed by 70%, from 7.7% to 13.1%, the study also found.

However, the proportion of teens who attempted suicide and also identified as sexual minorities also rose over time, from 24.6% in 2009 to 35.6% in 2017.

“There is a great deal of evidence linking stigma against sexual minority youth to suicide attempts,” Raifman said in an email. “Stigma in the form of family rejection, peer bullying, and higher-level state policies are all linked to increased suicide among sexual minority youth.”

The second study looked at more than two decades of data from youth in Massachusetts.

Lead author Richard Liu, a researcher at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and his colleagues found that suicidal plans and attempts declined across the board, but much more steeply among heterosexual youth than sexual minority teens.

One limitation of both studies is that the results may not represent what’s happening among youth nationwide, the researchers note.

Even so, the findings suggest that at least some sexual minority youth may not be receiving the support they need, Liu said.

“I think the results of our study really highlight that we have a long way to go to reduce suicide risk in sexual minority youth,” he told Reuters Health by email.

“Interpersonal conflicts are often a trigger for suicide risk, and having supportive and accepting people in their lives is important for sexual minority youth,” Liu added. “Additionally, having family and friends to turn to when dealing with conflicts with others cab help minimize risk for mental health concerns and suicide.”

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