Mending Distressed Souls Across the Rainbow: An Introduction

On March 12, I attended the conference on LGBT Suicide Risk and Prevention, hosted by the American Society for Suicide Prevention at the Emory School of Medicine. All researchers presenting at the conference showed how gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals face much higher rates of suicide and related health issues, such as depression and substance abuse. While the National Institutes of Health spends over $12 billion on HIV/AIDS research, only 1% as much, $169 million, goes to studying and preventing suicide. Similarly, compared to HIV/AIDS, suicide and depression often receive little attention in the LGBT community.

 

Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA. May 12, 2016.

Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA. March 12, 2016.

 

Statistics surrounding suicides reveal a nation full “distressed souls” where LGBTQ youth and ethnic minorities too often feel overwhelmed.  In the overall U.S. population, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, with more than 40,000 Americans taking their own lives each year (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide). Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. Young people from various minorities and marginalized groups are at particularly high risk for suicidal behaviors. For example, the rate of completed suicides for Native American youth ages 15 to 34 is 50% higher than the national average for the same age group (http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf).  Preliminary studies show LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers (http://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm). Recently, the Fenway Health Center found that transgender patients aged 12 to 29 had nearly three times the rate of attempted suicides as non-transgender patients matched in the study (http://fenwayfocus.org/2015/01/new-study-shows-transgender-youth-at-high-risk-for-negative-mental-health-outcomes/). The Fenway Health Center also found that 20% of non-white LGBTQ youth reported having attempted suicide during the previous year (http://fenwayfocus.org/2015/11/new-report-addresses-health-disparities-faced-by-lgbtq-youth-of-color/).  In the face of these sobering statistics, leaders in healthcare, political activism, and faith communities have much work to be done in reaching LGBTQ youth and other at-risk minorities.

 

With Chris (left) and Roland the organizers from the Atlanta chapter of the American Society for Suicide Prevention.

With Chris (left) and Roland the organizers from the Atlanta chapter of the American Society for Suicide Prevention.

 

Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are a disease which must be brought out into the light for treatment. Suicide is not criminal, not “sinful”, and not some unspeakable act to be relegated to the shadows of family secrets.  Suicide is preventable, but has more than a single cause; Suicide is associated with multiple risk factors, like heart disease.  Suicide risk factors across the population include alcohol abuse, financial distress, family violence, intimate relationship difficulties, social isolation, and untreated depression. High unemployment, combined with the increased availability of prescription pain-killers and heroin likely contribute to the recent increase in suicides among middle-aged adults (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6217a1.htm). Additional suicide risk factors are present for young people with sexual orientation or gender identity at odds with family, school, or church expectations. Homophobic bullying in schools and colleges is widely recognized as a risk factor for suicidal behaviors among LGBTQ young people. Yet, it is erroneous to assume that school bullies drive young people towards suicide.  Many “minority stressors”, common to LGBTQ populations, such as family rejection, job discrimination, and lack of adult role models, all take their toll in psychological pain.  LGBTQ people of color face additional hardships, such as harassment from law enforcement.

 

Crocus in flower on Emory Campus, near School of Medicine. March 12.

Crocus in flower on Emory Campus, near School of Medicine. March 12.

 

Not all risk factors for suicide or depression can be avoided. Protective factors serve to offset risk factors and build psychological resiliency. Many protective factors are unique to LGB and transgender identity. First, the ability to connect with LGB or transgender peers can drastically improve the young persons well-being. Activism and engagement with the LGBTQ movement within the broader society also exerts a protective effect upon struggling youth. Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in high schools and colleges serve to build the personal identities and interpersonal relationships of LGBT youth. Unfortunately, bisexual and questioning youth often feel excluded from conventional LGB and transgender spaces. The importance of LGBT and questioning identity and peer relationships is sadly emphasized by the higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse among bisexual and questioning youth. While supportive parents are a protective factor, evidence presented at the conference on LGBT Suicide Risk and Prevention suggested peer relationships and incidence of school bullying exert much stronger effects on youth suicide risk. All presenters at the conference agreed that robust school policies against bullying and sexual harassment are critically needed to serve as environmental protective factors. Moreover, transgender adults serving as peer counselors in educational or faith institutions are vital to addressing the additional challenges faced by transgender or gender-nonconforming youth. Together, interventions and policies towards preventing suicidal behaviors among LGBTQ young people serve to bolster protective factors while minimizing risk factors where possible. In future posts, I will investigate various community-based and peer-based strategies for building the resiliency of my young LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

 

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.  Additionally, if you struggle with depression or suicidal thoughts, feel free to contact the author of this post.  My personal e-mail is darlingtonwagner@gmail.com.