Academic journal article Social Work

Risk Factors for Suicide among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youths

Academic journal article Social Work

Risk Factors for Suicide among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youths

Article excerpt

Suicide was the second leading cause of death of young people ages 15 to 19 in the United States in the mid-1980s (Davis & Sandoval, 1991). Further, the suicide rate among young people rose 300 percent over the two decades before 1980 (Holinger, 1978), with nearly 5,000 U.S. adolescents or young adults (ages 15 to 24) committing suicide each year (National Center for Health Statistics, 1986). Although risk factors and reasons for suicide have been investigated for youths in general, little research has been done on gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths' risk. Hidden and often invisible to service care providers, these youths may experience greater social discrimination, depression, isolation, low self-esteem, and violence than their heterosexual counterparts (Hunter, 1990; Remafedi, Farrow, & Deisher, 1991; Rofes, 1989; Sondheimer, 1982), all of which exacerbate their desperation and augment the risk for suicide.

According to a study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) (Gibson, 1989), gay and lesbian youths are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youths, and 30 percent of all completed youth suicides are related to issues of sexual identity. Further, nearly 25 percent to 30 percent of surveyed gay, lesbian, or bisexual youths have reported attempts at suicide by the mean age of 15.5 years (Avicolli, 1986; Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, 1986; Remafedi et al., 1991; Roesler & Deisher, 1972). The DHHS findings were later rejected by members of Congress and the DHHS secretary during the Reagan-Bush era, Louis Sullivan (Sedgewick, 1992), who believed that such information was contrary to family values and therefore contrary to DHHS's mission. Such a refusal to acknowledge the difficulties of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths leaves very few sanctioned avenues for investigation of suicide risk factors.

Also, most research on gay, lesbian, and bisexual suicide has historically operated under the climate of psychopathology or psychiatric settings instead of investigating it as a response to the difficulties of a hostile environment (Jay & Young, 1979). As a result, it has been difficult to substantiate without bias whether gay men and lesbians are at greater risk for suicidal ideation or attempts. The literature discussed in this article chronicles the rates and risk factors of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults and youths as well as associated risk factors.

Literature Review Adult Studies

Rate. Saunders and Valente (1987), extrapolating from several studies (Climent, Ervin, Rollins, Plutchik, & Batinelli, 1977; Kremer & Rifkin, 1969; Saunders & Brink, 1982; Woodruff, Clayton, & Guze, 1972), suggested that gay men and lesbians have a suicide rate 2.5 to 7 times higher than heterosexuals. Jay and Young (1979) found that 40 percent of gay men and 39 percent of lesbians surveyed had either made attempts or seriously considered committing suicide. Additionally, Bell and Weinberg (1978) found that 35 percent of gay men and 38 percent of lesbians in their study had made attempts or seriously considered suicide. Gay men were six times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual men, and lesbians were twice as likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual women.

Risk Factors. Although studies of adult gay men and lesbians provide evidence that gay men and lesbians are at greater risk for suicide, such studies are inconclusive about what leads to the increased risk. For example, researchers have commented on the spurious assumption that homosexuality as pathology leads to suicide (Harry, 1983; Saghir & Robins, 1973; Saghir, Robins, Walbran, & Gentry, 1970).

Saghir and Robins (1973) studied a non-psychiatric sample of 89 gay men and 57 lesbians and compared them to a control group of 45 heterosexual women and 35 heterosexual men. The gay men and lesbians showed a statistically significant difference in alcohol and drug abuse and attempted suicide. …

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