Gay and bisexual teens are five times as likely as heterosexual peers to attempt suicide, according to new research — but a supportive social environment can cut that rate by one-fifth.

The study published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics finds that a negative social environment is associated with high rates of suicide attempts by lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth.

Additional risk factors for suicide attempts among LGB youth include depression, binge drinking, peer victimization and physical abuse by an adult. In this study, these factors were statistically controlled to assess the influence of the social environment on suicide attempts.

Findings from the study show that community support and social policies can have a beneficial effect on combating discrimination and reducing perceived stress.

Researchers studied nearly 32,000 11th-grade students in Oregon and discovered LGB youth were more than five times as likely to have attempted suicide in the previous 12 months, compared to their heterosexual peers (21.5 percent vs. 4.2 percent).

A positive or supporting environment toward LGB youth dropped the rate of suicide attempts by a quarter.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth ages 15 to 24. Unfortunately, only a few studies have examined whether a young person’s social environment contributes to the likelihood that he or she will attempt suicide.

In this review, information was garnered from the 2006 and 2008 Oregon Healthy Teens survey, an annual survey of public school students in 8th and 11th grade in Oregon. Sexual orientation is assessed only in 11th grade; participants remain anonymous.

“The results of this study are pretty compelling,” said psychologist Dr. Mark L. Hatzenbuehler at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“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.”

Hatzenbuehler assessed the social environment by comparing five measures:

  • the proportion of schools with anti-bullying policies specifically protecting LGB students;
  • the proportion of schools with Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs);
  • the proportion of schools with anti-discrimination policies that included sexual orientation;
  • the proportion of same-sex couples;
  • the proportion of Democrats in the county.

The study found that a more supportive social environment was associated with 20 percent fewer suicide attempts than an unsupportive environment. A supportive environment was also associated with a 9 percent lower rate of attempted suicide among heterosexual students.

Researchers believe the study shows what needs to occur to reduce suicide attempts among lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. “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,” said Hatzenbuehler.

Source: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health