BOSTON — As recently as 10 years ago, the idea of coming out and being accepted as homosexual or bisexual felt unthinkable for countless LGBQ teens. Society has seen significant progression in recent years, though, and a new study finds that the number of U.S. teens openly identifying themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning has doubled between 2009 and 2017. Unfortunately, despite progress in this regard, the study also notes that LGBQ teenage suicide attempt rates are still disturbingly high.
In 2009, the LGBQ teenage attempted suicide rate was five times that of their straight peers. In 2017, while the rate did see a slight decline, it was still four times higher than the attempted suicide rate among straight teens.
“Large disparities in suicide attempts persisted even as the percent of students identifying as LGBQ increased. In 2017, more than 20% of LGBQ teens reported attempting suicide in the past year,” says lead study author Dr. Julia Raifman, assistant professor of health law, policy & management at Boston University’s School of Public Health, in a release.
“It’s critical that health and educational institutions have policies and programs in place to protect and improve LGBQ health, such as medical school curricula and high school health curricula that are inclusive of sexual minority health,” Dr. Raifman adds.
Raifman and her team believe that LGBQ rights, or perhaps lack thereof, play a significant role in subsequent teenage suicide attempts. In a separate study conducted in 2017, Raifman found that the legalization of same-sex marriage coincided with a 7% decrease in all high school student suicide attempts. Additionally, numerous previous research projects have noted that anti-LGBQ policies are seriously detrimental to the LGBQ community’s overall mental health.
“Our new paper indicates that an increasing number of teenagers are identifying as LGBQ, and will be affected by anti-LGBQ policies that may elevate these already very high rates of suicide attempts” she says.
Only six U.S. states continuously collected data on sexual orientation among teens between 2009-2017; Rhode Island, Maine, Delaware, Illinois, North Dakota, and Massachusetts. Among those six, only Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Illinois kept track of the gender of sexually-active students’ partners, and made a distinction between consensual sexual activity and sexual assault. So, the research team were left with sexual orientation data on 110,243 high school students, and further information on the consensual sexual activity of 25,994 students within that larger group.
Using all that data, researchers determined that the percentage of high school students openly identifying themselves as LGBQ doubled from 7.3% in 2009 to 14.3% in 2017. Breaking those statistics down a bit further, the percentage of openly gay or lesbian students increased from 1.4% to 2.8%, bisexual teens went up from 3.9% to 7.2%, and teens unsure about their sexuality increased from 2.0% to 4.3%. Meanwhile, the number of sexual active high schoolers who reported same-sex sexual activity went up from 7.7% to 13.1%.
In 2009, and again in 2017, roughly 6% of heterosexual high school students reported attempting suicide over the previous year. In comparison, 26.7% of LGBQ teens attempted suicide in 2009, and 20.1% did the same in 2017.
High school can be a tough time for anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, and the results of this study make it clear that LGBQ teens are in need of additional support and acceptance as they navigate the pitfalls of growing up.
The study is published in Pediatrics.