Suicide, after fatal injuries and homicides, is the most frequent cause of death for U.S. citizens between the ages of 15 and 24. Certain young Americans, in particular, are at increased risk of dying by suicide. Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth attempt to take their lives at a rate four times higher than heterosexual teenagers, according to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that offers a national hotline and other suicide prevention efforts for young LGBT people.
In the past few years, public health experts have increasingly investigated the factors, such as mental illness or substance abuse, behind why teenagers attempt suicide. More recently, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Harvard University asked a different sort of question: whether the legalization of same-sex marriage could have an impact on suicide attempts in adolescents.
Such an association seems to exist, at least based on self-reported data from more than 750,000 students. As the scientists wrote in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, students living in states where same-sex marriage was legalized saw a drop in suicide rates, compared to students living elsewhere (a critical point being that the scientists investigated an association, not a causal relationship).
The new study was not designed to explain why the drop occurred. But one possibility, the study authors said, was that same-sex marriage was related to a reduction in social stigma.
“Policymakers need to be aware that policies on sexual minority rights can have a real effect on the mental health of adolescents,” said Julia Raifman, a study author and an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, in a news release. “We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views.”
Psychiatrist Victor Schwartz, a medical officer at the youth suicide prevention group the JED Foundation, who was not involved in the study, said that feeling stigmatized can be frightening and painful. “It’s a real risk factor, a feeling that you’re at odds with your family or community,” he said to PBS. “You feel like you’re going to be left out on your own.”