Suicide-prevention conference draws attention to LGBTQ suicide risks

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Nov. 3, 2011
By: Tynan Power/TRT Reporter
It is generally accepted that suicide rates in the LGBTQ community are especially high.

Yet, there are no official statistics to back that up, according to Dr. Ann Haas, a medical sociologist with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. However, she says, that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

“It’s important to understand there is no official set of data,” Haas told an audience of professionals gathered for a conference on suicide prevention held at The Log Cabin Banquet and Meetinghouse in Holyoke last month. ‘We just don’t have any information about suicide rates.”

She explained that the lack of data is a result of U.S. death certificates’ not including sexual orientation or gender-identity information. In some cases, it might not even be possible to get accurate information from survivors. Young people, for example, might not have come out.

What is known about LGBTQ suicide risk comes from other kinds of statistics. Haas cited a 2009 study that showed that men in same-sex domestic partnerships were eight times more likely to die from suicide than men in heterosexual marriages, and twice as likely as men who had never been married or partnered. She called these results “startling.”

Another study of lesbians and gay men revealed that gay men were four times more likely than straight men to have attempted suicide; lesbians were twice as likely as heterosexual women to have made an attempt. Lesbian and gay male youth report three times more attempts — and those attempts are four times more likely to be considered “medically serious” — than their straight peers.

Statistics for transgender people are even more rare, and more startling.

Haas provided data from the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which showed that 41 percent of transgender people reported making a suicide attempt, but it’s not clear when those attempts took place.

“The lack of age-related data on lifetime attempts is a problem,” Haas said, explaining that it’s not clear if the risk is higher in youth than in adults and, if so, by how much.

“We certainly pay more attention to LGBT youth than we do to LGBT adults,” she said. “As a result, in the popular mind, this seems like a youth problem.”

One thing is clear about youth risk in general: “Youth attempt suicide more,” said Haas, “but they don’t succeed more.”

“A suicide attempt is a risk factor but not a strong predictor of completed suicide,” Haas continued. Fewer than 10 percent of people admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt actually die from suicide in the next 10 years.

Haas also noted that it is significant that there is an increased risk of depression and other mental disorders, including substance abuse, among LGBT people. These, in turn, become risk factors for suicide.
In the NESARC survey in 2010, there was a clear correlation between increased rates of mental disorders and a combination of lesbian, gay or bisexual identity, behavior and attraction. Men who reported only same-sex behavior or attraction, but not identity, had higher rates of mental disorders than men with only heterosexual experiences and attraction. On the other hand, women who reported same-sex behavior or attraction, but not lesbian identity, had lower rates of mental disorders than their counterparts who reported only heterosexual activity or attraction.

The NESARC survey and the National Transgender Discrimination Survey were significant, according to Haas, because they underscore the dangers of lumping different demographic groups together, as can happen in research on LGBT populations.

“We don’t have consistent definitions of terms,” Haas noted. She explained that behavior is often used as the defining criteria because it is the criteria used in the health care model of risk, as with data regarding men who have sex with men, where identity is less relevant.

“Identity may be the strongest predictor [of suicide risk], especially with regard to mental disorders,” Haas said.

Bullying, also, can lead to risk factors of suicide such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Yet, according to Haas, bullying alone does not appear to statistically increase risk of suicide in a significant way.

Another major factor Haas cited was access to health insurance, with 22 percent of LGBT people lacking health insurance versus half that number among heterosexual, cisgender individuals.

“If you look at health insurance access and the evidence for increased risk of mental disorders [among LGBT people], that’s a very troubling combination.”

Haas recommended a number of steps to aid in prevention, starting with improving the knowledgebase by gathering more information about deaths.

“We’ve got to find out what LGBT people are dying from,” Haas said.
Haas also recommended increased funding for LGBT suicide research and promoting awareness and understanding of LGBT suicide risk.
Gathered that day were hundreds from the health care community, benefiting from the information she presented, but Haas stressed that the information needed to reach LGBT people.

“We need to be sure that we’re speaking to the LGBT communities.”
She noted that one obstacle to working with the LGB community is the distrust caused by previous inclusion of homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders.

“It’s been years since sexual orientation was removed [from the DSM],” said Haas, “but this lives on in the LGB community.”

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