A new study pinpoints signs that LGBT teens may be at risk for suicide and suggests how to intervene.
A new study pinpoints signs that LGBT teens may be at risk for suicide and suggests how to intervene. Ben Goode/iStockphoto.com
Chances are you've seen a YouTube video featuring _______ (fill in a celebrity's name) telling America's gay teens that "it gets better."
There are a slew of them promising that the bullying will eventually subside and that life will improve, if teens can just hang in there.
It's a fitting campaign in light of suicide sitting third on the list of causes of death among young people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for young people who happen to be gay, it's even a bigger threat. They're four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.
When it comes to protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens from considering suicide, a study involving about 250 of them has identified several risks and one major protective factor.
"This is the first data pointing us to where we can act," study author Brian Mustanski tells Shots. "This is the first study to look at the thoughts and behaviors of suicide. It lets us look at what those predictors are."
In the study, the LGBT participants who had an impulsive personality and a history of suicide attempts thought about killing themselves more often. And, in what should be abundantly clear these days, young people who were harassed for their sexual orientation were more likely to consider suicide, the researchers found.
So what stopped death from popping into the participants' minds? A strong support system of family and friends acted like a protective mental shield against perilous thoughts. The teens who knew they could open up to their parents about their problems seemed to fare better by having a positive influence on their thoughts.
The findings — specific to LGBT youth — could help health care professionals, teachers, family members and friends pick up on the precursor signs of suicide contemplation.
The results appear in the latest issue of American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Previous research on LGBT adolescents has only looked at their risk of actually attempting suicide, he says, not the predictors that make them vulnerable to it or protect them from it. Mustanski, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, kept tabs on the LGBT volunteers, ages 16-20 at the start, in the Chicago area for 2 1/2 years. About one-third of the group had attempted suicide before.
Those attempts shouldn't be taken lightly. "Some people don't want to take [suicide attempts] seriously, but our research suggests that making an attempt is predictive of the future," he says. That means more suicidal thoughts and attempts may lie down the road.
Mustanski stresses the importance of that safety net of family and friends for a teen to fall back on. That net starts being woven when kids come out to their parents. A reaction of acceptance and not judgment lets the kid know that his or her parents are approachable and love them, he says.
This support comes in handy should the kid feel rejected at school or become the target of bullies. "Those experiences are toxic," he says. A family that stands behind its son or daughter, as the study shows, is a key deterrent to suicidal thoughts.
To help improve the environment at school, Mustanski suggests an expansion of educational programs and school clubs, such as Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and Gay-Straight Alliance. He says that these groups can help LGBT youth feel less vulnerable and more accepted. They may also curb bullying on campuses, he says, and that, in turn, could reduce the frequency of suicidal thoughts among LGBT students.