Gay / Lesbian Youth Suicide Problems in Australia / New Zealand?
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History of the Suicide Problem in Gay Communities

The Homosexuality Factor in

the Youth Suicide Problem

Pierre J. Tremblay
Presented at the Sixth Annual Conference of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Banff, Alberta, October 11-14, 1995, (c) Oct 1995. First made available on the Internet on January 19, 1996.

Contents - Abstract - Addendum - Introduction



Suicidology has a history of not recognizing the homosexuality factor in suicide problems, but a suicide problem has existed in gay communities for the last 150 years. Non-random samples of GLB (gay, lesbian, and bisexual) youth have produced 20% to 50% attempted suicide rates. Their predictable over- representation in the attempted suicide problem, at least for GB males, has now been confirmed by Dr. C. Bagley's study of 750 randomly sampled young adult males. Homosexually active males accounted for 37.5% of suicide attempters, and the actual percentage may be higher. Study results and the related literature suggest that GLB youth of colour are at the highest risk for suicide attempts. Professionals working with youth generally lack the knowledge and understanding needed to help these "at risk" adolescents, and their socially induced interrelated problems may be exacerbated when they access often inappropriate services. Important changes in the youth problem prevention/intervention fields are mandatory. The Bagley study reveals that 87.5% of male youth suicide attempters were either sexually abused as children and/or are homosexually oriented. Data confirming a postulated GLB over-representation in worsening youth suicide statistics is lacking due to the poor quality of the research work.


In this paper it is reported that 3 out of 8 suicide attempters in the Bagley(1994) sample are gay or bisexual. A further analysis of the data has revealed that 5 out of 8 suicide attempters are in this category. Therefore, 62.5% of suicide attempters are GB males, not 37.5%. and they are 13.6-times more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. A paper related to gay demographics and suicide-related problems is being written by Dr. Chris Bagley and Pierre Tremblay. (January 8, 1996.) [1999 Note: Paper first became available online in September, 1996) and was published in June, 1997.]


Suicidologists have generally been reluctant to accept or research the informed proposition that GLB (gay, lesbian, and bisexual) people, and especially GLB youth, are at higher risk for suicide behaviours than their heterosexual counterparts. Therefore, research papers and articles about youth suicide problems have traditionally omitted sexual orientation issues. In response to four such articles published in the early 1990s (1-4), the authors were challenged in letters to the editor(5-7) written by professionals familiar with GLB youth and their problems. Linda Snelling, author of one letter published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association), was troubled by the neglect of GLB youth in the medical professions.
"I was both astonished and saddened to find that in her recent editorial, 'Youth Suicide: The Physician's Role in Suicide Prevention,' Blumenthal did not discuss the impact of the repression of emerging awareness of homosexuality on the incidence of suicide among young people." After describing the hate-ridden environments in which GLB youth often live, and their related problems, she stated: "If alleged experts on suicide prevention cannot include issues relevant to gay youth in their discussions of counselling strategies, I suggest that these youth are not only hated, but also at risk of being ignored to death by medical professionals. Denying the needs of these young people - or worse, ignoring their very existence - only confirms that we in the medical profession do not consider them important..." (7:2806)]
By 1993 a few professionals in the field of adolescent suicide prevention were taking note of this increasingly visible debate. In American Psychologist, Garland & Zigler(1993) wrote the following lines about GLB suicide problems. "The humiliation and frustration suffered by some adolescents struggling with conflicts over their sexual orientation may precipitate suicidal behaviour(Harry,1989 [38]), although there is considerable debate over whether homosexuality is a risk factor for suicide (see Blumenthal 1991; Snelling, 1991)." (8:173) In the same issue of American Psychologist, the authors of Depression in adolescence also alerted professionals about problems affecting GLB youth. "Gay and lesbian youth have a two- to threefold risk of suicide (Gibson, 1989 [24] ), and they are probably at greater risk for depression"(9:158).

By 1995, little was yet to be noted with respect to the GLB suicide problems in the field of Suicidology. In a Spring 1995 Special Issue of SLTB (Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour) titled Suicide Prevention Toward the Year 2000, the existence of GLB youth was not mentioned in the articles discussing youth aged 12-18 and 18-30 (10, 11). Neither was the issue raised in the SLTB Summer 1995 paper Research in adolescent suicide: Implication for training, service delivery, and public policy (12), nor in the SLTB Fall 1995 paper Psychosocial correlates of suicide attempts among junior and senior high school students (13).

In the Spring Special Issue of SLTB, however, the GLB suicide issue was addressed by Eve K. Moscicki, but not in a positive way. "A second misconception is that gay and lesbian youth account for a large proportion of suicides, and that sexual orientation is a major risk factor. This hypothesis has not been tested in carefully designed studies." Noting some of the problems related to doing this, she went on to dismiss the idea that gay males are more at risk for suicide, as based on the result of the 1986 San Diego Suicide Study (to be discussed later in this paper). A few research papers about the GLB youth suicide problem were cited with the conclusion: "[I]t is not clear, however whether it [sexual orientation] independently contributes to increased risk. Unfortunately, no information is available from unbiased samples" (14:32).

Are GLB people in general, and GLB youth in particular, at higher risk for manifesting suicide behaviours than their heterosexual counterparts? A brief summary of suicide-related observations recorded over the last 150 years does suggest that such a problem has existed in gay communities, the causes being either unique to gay males, or predominantly applying to them.

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