A new study which may be good news for the LGBT community says the legalization of same-sex marriage has been significantly linked to a drop in suicide attempts among teenagers.
The research conducted by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed suicide prevalence rates for high school students among US states, to compare those which had legalized marriage for same-sex couples and those which haven’t. It analyzed states which had passed marriage equality legislation at different points in time and the corresponding impact on suicide prevalence.
The public health researchers analyzed a database of close to 763,000 high school students who regularly participated in a health survey of American young people between 1999 and 2015.
By analyzing behavioral trends in a very large and diverse population of youths, their study aimed to detect changes within a very understudied population of a very understudied phenomenon.
According to the study, suicide attempts among high school students fell by an average of 7% following the implementation of the legislation. The impact was especially significant among gay, lesbian and bisexual or transgender (LGBT) teenagers, for whom the passing of same-sex marriage laws was linked to a 14% drop in suicide attempts.
It has been suggested that this is due to LGBT students feeling accepted by their communities and thereby having better mental health. LGBT people have considerably higher rates of mental health diagnoses, with depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation than heterosexual people, which is thought to be due to the emotional and psychological toll of social stigma and prejudice.
In short, the research suggests, the effect of state marriage equality laws passed between 1999 and 2015 extended far beyond gay men and lesbians intent on marrying: For high schoolers coming to terms with their “sexual minority” status, their state’s adoption of a marriage equality law appeared to ease a stigma that drives many to consider suicide.
The study’s lead author Julia Raifman mentioned that the research should be a starting point for more detailed exploration of the issue. She said:
“I think it is good for parents, teachers and medical professionals to be aware of the disparity and try to address it.
“I think there is a need for further research. A lot of studies look at interventions for suicide attempts, but none have really focused on LGBT interventions.”
A public health specialist from Columbia University, Mark L. Hatzenbuehler acknowledges that no single factor can fully explain a complex behavior such as suicide. He said the new study “suggests that structural stigma — in the form of state laws — represents a potentially consequential but thus far largely overlooked” factor underlying suicidal behavior in young people who are gay, lesbian or bisexual.
The authors were careful to point out that they were merely demonstrating an association, and that they cannot make inferences about the specific mechanism by which implementation of same-sex marriage policies contributes to a reduction in adolescent suicide attempts — they can only note that the association is a robust one.
On 26 June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a legal right to marry throughout the country. Previously, a number of states had passed their own legislation to that effect but it was not uniformly adopted around the US.
Between 1999 and 2015, when marriage equality became the law of the land, 32 states adopted laws allowing same-sex couples to wed. The new research, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, is the first to explore how that rapid social and legal change affected the psychological health of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students.