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October 9, 2019

Research Sheds Light on a National Tragedy: Younger LGBT Youth Are More Likely to Die by Suicide

When Geoffrey Ream, PhD, associate professor in the Adelphi University School of Social Work, set out to study the variability in circumstances around suicide deaths among youth and young adults by sexual/gender identity, he didn’t anticipate the media attention around one finding.

In his study, “What’s Unique About Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth and Young Adult Suicides? Findings From the National Violent Death Reporting System,” Journal of Adolescent Health (May 2019), Dr. Ream found that almost one-quarter (24 percent) of 12- to 14-year-olds who died by suicide were LGBT. Only eight percent of 25- to 29-year-olds who died by suicide were LGBT.

The finding that the disparity between LGBT and non-LGBT suicide is greatest at younger ages was picked up by Reuters and inspired articles in many publications. But Dr. Ream said the focus of his paper was about how each subgroup—gay male, lesbian/gay female, bisexual male, bisexual female, transgender male, transgender female, non-LGBT male and non-LGBT female—has its own specific risk profile for suicide.

Geoffrey Ream, PhD, focuses on sexual and gender-minority (LGBTQ+) youth issues, suicide, homelessness, substance abuse, religion and faith development. He also specializes in survey research and advanced statistical methods. He holds a PhD in Human Development from Cornell University.

For instance, he found that most non-LGBT males and bisexual males died by firearm and had intimate partner problems that contributed to their deaths. Non-LGBT females and LGBT persons other than bisexual males were generally less likely to use firearms. They were also more likely to have psychiatric diagnoses, prior thoughts of suicide and family problems contributing to their deaths.

“With gay males, their precipitating social stressor was equally likely to have been an intimate partner problem as a family problem. For lesbians, their precipitating social stressor was almost always a romantic partner problem,” Dr. Ream said. “Bisexual males had about the same risk profile as non-LGBT males. Bisexual females had some of the highest rates of all of the risk factors I studied.

“This underscores what a lot of us in the field have been saying,” he continued, “which is that bisexual, lesbian and gay are not all the same population. They have to be thought of differently. Trans persons have to be thought of differently too, but I didn’t get very many statistically significant findings about them. This is probably because whatever unique risk factors they have weren’t in the codes that came with the data.”

Speculating on why the LGBT versus non-LGBT suicide disparity was so much higher at younger ages, Dr. Ream said, “They don’t have the same maturity to deal with problems that they will when they get older, and they don’t have as many places to turn outside of the family for support if the family reacts badly [to their sexuality].”

Dr. Ream said that suicide prevention and intervention efforts targeted at LGBT youth may increase their effectiveness by attending to differences by age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Though the media have focused on the age results in his findings, Dr. Ream thought the most important thing was how the data became available.

“People like The Trevor Project, the American Psychological Association and a lot of the different advocacy and activist organizations lobbied hard for years to get the Centers for Disease Control to collect national data on LGBT youth suicide,” he said. “Now we have a nationally representative psychological autopsy data set—full of the stories of people we’ve already lost—maintained by the government. That’s the big deal. I was just the last-mile delivery person by getting it into publication.”

While Dr. Ream doesn’t think his findings contribute anything new to the understanding of why the LGBT suicide disparity exists, he believes that the media coverage of his paper may have profound effects.

“What I think my paper, and the coverage of it, did was to make LGBT suicide more straightforward to talk about,” he said. “People used to say, ‘LGBT people are more likely to report suicide attempts,’ or ‘being LGBT is associated with higher likelihood of suicide.’ Now advocates can unequivocally say that LGBT youth are more likely to die by suicide, especially the young teens.”



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