New study sheds light on LGBT youth suicides

A new study of youth suicides in the US has shed light on the high levels of suicides in LGBT communities. Key findings include the fact that the majority of LGBT people who suicide (57%) are biologically male and nearly one quarter (24%) of 12 to 14-year-olds who die by suicide are LGBT.

The study is notable in that it uses data from the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS). Most research into suicide among people with minority sexual/gender identities has tended to measure suicidality (e.g. having suicidal thoughts or attempting suicide), but not rates of suicide, as data on a person’s sexuality is rarely recorded at the time of death.

Measuring suicidality on its own is not an effective way of predicting suicide rates in different populations, particularly where gender is involved. When we look at gender differences, for example, we find men are more likely to suicide even though women are more likely to record higher levels of suicidality in research projects.

Where research focuses on people with minority sexual/gender identities as a single group, it can obscure the different experiences of diverse communities including males and those who identify as male. This new research provides a range of insights into LGBT suicide by providing data for various sub-groups by age, sexual identity and transgender status.

As a men’s health organisation, the following overview of the research focuses mostly on the findings that relate to gay males, bisexual males, trans men who are biologically female and trans women who are biologically male.

 What were the key findings?

  • Nearly one quarter (24%) of 12 to 14-year-olds who die by suicide are LGBT
  • LGBT people account for 1 in 10 suicides in the under 30 age group
  • The majority (57%) of LGBT young people under 30 who suicide are male

 The sample size

 The research considered 10,311 cases of suicide in people aged 12-29 from states that participated in the NVDRS. Of these, around one fifth of cases (2,209) had valid data for sexual orientation and/or were coded as transgender.

The 2,209 suicide cases comprised:

  • 72.5% non-LGBT males
  • 17.8% non-LGBT females
  • 4.2% were gay males
  • 2.9% were lesbian
  • 0.8% were bisexual males
  • 0.5% bisexual females
  • 0.7% transgender males
  • 0.5% transgender females

 What does LGBT mean in this study?

LGBT refers to the most common minority sexual identities (e.g. lesbian, gay, bisexual) and minority gender identities (e.g. transgender and transgender female). The research points out that “NVDRS data still do not contain adequate subsamples of queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, and other minority sexual/gender identities” which is why the study refers to “LGBT” rather than “gender and sexual minorities”.

The transgender cases in the study were classified as trans-male if their biological sex was female and trans-female if their biological sex was male.

Suicide rates and suicide numbers

As with other health data, suicide research often refers to the “rates” that a particular issue arises in a specific population. This enables us to compare different populations and see which groups are at higher or lower risk. Rates are often confused with numbers. It is possible, for example, for a small population to have a high rate of suicide, but for the numbers of suicide to be relatively low when compared with other populations.

Men over 85, for example, currently have the highest rate of suicide of all age groups in Australia. But there are many more men who die of suicide in their 40s (even though their rate of suicide is lower), because the population of men in their 40s is much bigger than the population of men over 85.

While this new study on LGBT suicide sheds light on the number of suicides among different populations, it doesn’t estimate an LGBT suicide rate. However, an estimated comparison of LGBT and non-LGBT suicide rates is provided in the next section.

Estimating LGBT v Non-LGBT suicide rates

While the study does not measure rates of suicide (only numbers) it does suggest that the rate of suicide in LGBT populations is around two-and-a-half times higher than we’d expect to see compared to non-LGBT populations, based on previous research (cited in the study) that suggest that 4% of the US population belongs to a gender or sexual minorities group.

However, this estimate overlooks the impact of the gender gap. While both LGBT and non-LGBT males are more likely to die by suicide than their female counterparts, the increased risk of suicide in GBT males is less stark that the increased risk for LBT females:

  • Lesbian, bisexual and transgender females account for nearly 1 in 5 female suicides
  • Gay, bisexual and transgender males account for 1 in 14 male suicides.

In broad terms, this suggests that LBT females are around 4 times greater risk of suicide than non-LBT females. In contrast, although more GBT males die by suicide (than LBT females), the high rate of suicide among non-GBT males means that the increased rise in GBT males is less than twice that of non-GBT males.

LGBT suicide by age group

Perhaps the most stark finding of the study is the fact that nearly one quarter of 12 to 14-year-olds who die by suicide were LGBT. This proportion seems to reduce with age, although the actual number of LBGT suicides appears to increase with age:

  • 24% of 12-14 year olds suicides (12 suicides)
  • 16% of 15-17 year olds suicides (more than 30 suicides)
  • 12% of 18-20 year olds suicides are LGBT (more than 40 suicides)
  • 9% of 21-24 year olds suicides are LGBT (around 60 suicides)
  • 8% of 25-29 year olds suicides are LGBT (more than 70 suicides)

The age ranges used in the study are not consistent (ranging from 3 years to 5 years) nor are they disaggregated by sex, sexuality or gender identity, limiting the scope for comparisons between different groups.

Gay male suicides

Gay males accounted for the largest number of suicides of all the LGBT populations listed in the study. The research found that:

  • 92 of the 2,209 suicide cases were gay males (4.2% of the total)
  • Gay males accounted for 43% of all LGBT suicides
  • There were over 40% more gay male suicides than lesbian suicides

Bisexual male suicides

Bisexual males and females accounted for 30 suicides (compared with more than 150 suicides in lesbians and gay males). The research found that:

  • 18 of the 2,209 suicide cases were bisexual males (0.8% of the total)
  • Bisexual males accounted for 8% of all LGBT suicides
  • There were 50% more bisexual male suicides than bisexual female suicides

Transgender suicides

The transgender cases in the study were classified as trans-male if their biological sex was female, and trans-female if their biological sex was male. The research found that:

  • 28 of the 2,209 suicide cases were transgender people (1.3% of the total).
  • 16 of the 2,209 suicide cases (0.7% of the total) were trans-males (biologically female)
  • 12 of the 2,209 suicide cases (0.5% of the total) were trans-females (biologically male)
  • Trans males and females accounted for 13% of all LGBT suicides

Comparing gender differences (LGBT v non-LGBT)

Some of the gender differences observed in non-LGBT population are replicated in the LGBT population, for example:

  • Non-LGBT males are more likely to die by suicide on the first known attempt than non-LGBT females (82% v 65%)
  • Gay males are more likely to die by suicide on the first known attempt than lesbians (74% v 63%)
  • Bisexual males are more likely to die by suicide on the first known attempt than Bisexual females (67% v 58%)

Despite these similarities, the rates of suicide in LGBT communities appear to be higher than in non-LGBT communities and the gap between males and females in LGBT communities is much smaller.

A history of suicidal thinking

Identifying and supporting people with a previous history of suicidal thinking can be a form of suicide prevention, as this group may be at increased risk to suicide. This risk factor can vary with gender and sexual orientation as follows:

  • 82% of Non-LGBT males died at the first known attempt
  • 75% of Trans females (biologically male) died at the first known attempt
  • 74% of Gay males died at the first known attempt
  • 67% of Bisexual males died at the first known attempt
  • 65% of Non-LGBT females died at the first known attempt
  • 63% of Lesbians died at the first known attempt
  • 58% of Bisexual females died at the first known attempt
  • 50% of Trans males (biologically female) died at the first known attempt

There is a clear pattern here showing that gay, bisexual and non-LGBT males (along with trans females) are more likely to die at the first known attempt and so interventions targeting people known to have suicidal thoughts will be less effective at reaching these groups.

A history of mental illness

Most suicide prevention work focuses on a mental health approach, despite the fact that the majority of men who die by suicide don’t have a history of mental illness. When looking at all groups in the study we find that:

  • 69% of non-LGBT male suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 53% of Bisexual male suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 52% of Gay male suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 50% of Lesbians suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 49% of non-LGBT female suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 42% of Trans female (biologically male) suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 33% of Trans males (biologically female) suicides had no previous history of mental illness
  • 9% of Bisexual female suicides had no previous history of mental illness

These figures emphasise the need to include suicide prevention initiatives that look beyond mental health issues to address the other social factors that can put people on the path to suicide.

The link between suicide and intimate partner problems

The most common factor that contributed to suicides in the study was “intimate partner problems”.

  • 72% of Lesbian suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 62% of Non-LGBT male suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 58% of Bisexual female suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 53% of Non-LGBT female suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 35% of Gay male suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 33% of Bisexual male suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 33% of Trans female (biologically male) suicides were linked to intimate partner problems
  • 19% of Trans male (biologically female) suicides were linked to intimate partner problems

Notably, intimate partner problems were a contributing factor in 72% of lesbian suicides (compared with 35%) of gay male suicides.

Link between suicide and family problems 

Family problems were also a significant contributor to suicides in the study:

  • 42% of Bisexual female suicides were linked to family problems
  • 29% of Gay male suicides were linked to intimate family problems
  • 28% of Bisexual male suicides were linked to family problems
  • 25% of Trans male (biologically female) suicides were linked to family problems
  • 19% of Non-LGBT female suicides were linked to family problems
  • 12% of Lesbian suicides were linked to family problems
  • 10% of Non-LGBT male suicides were linked to family problems
  • 8% of Trans female (biologically male) suicides were linked to family problems

Notably, family problems were a contributing factor in 29% of gay male suicides (compared with 12%) of lesbian suicides.

TAKE ACTION FOR MEN'S HEALTH

DOWNLOAD: LGBTI Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Strategy

READ: NVDRS Research

READ: Male suicides in Australia
(AMHF) 

Photo by Jordan McDonald

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