For LGBT Teens, It Gets Worse When Friends Bail

A new study shows that family and friends who don’t support LGBT youths in the South contribute to higher risks of depression and attempted suicide.
(Photo: Georgia Court/Getty Images)
Aug 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

From being suspended for holding hands with a same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend to being physically assaulted, LGBT youths face plenty of bullying and discrimination at school in the United States. Now a new study reveals that the lack of support from family, friends, and educators could put these students at greater risk of attempting suicide, particularly if they live in a more conservative area of the country.

The study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, looked at a small subset of lesbian, gay, or bisexual teenagers living in Tennessee. The researchers found that youths in this part of the country who lost friends during the coming-out process were 29 times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers who didn’t. Lesbian, gay, or bisexual youths who were mistreated by their caregivers, such as parents, were also linked to a higher risk of suicide attempt—they were 9.5 times more likely—than youths with supportive family members.

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“The results highlight the importance of creating safe, affirming spaces for LGB youth who may be faced with peer and familial rejection after coming out,” lead study author Jae Puckett, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota, wrote in an email to TakePart. Puckett wrote that the authors chose the term “LGB” as the best representation of the adolescents surveyed because they did not include transgender students.

People living in the mid-South—Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas—are some of the most religious in America, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey. That may create a “greater stigma against LGB individuals” in those states, and youths “may be especially impacted by homophobia and political oppression,” the authors wrote in the study.

Melissa Moore, the executive director of South Carolina–based LGBT advocacy organization We Are Family, told TakePart that some Southern communities are still unwilling to recognize that it’s OK to identify as LGBT. Youths growing up in religiously conservative homes in the South may be taught that “being LGBT is an abomination,” Moore said. That may add to LGBT youths’ feelings of isolation at home and at school.

“Right now in our school system, LGBT youths are invisible,” Moore said. “When schools conduct surveys to ask about demographic information like race and socioeconomic status, there’s nothing to account for gender identity or sexual orientation. We can’t even get an idea of the scope of the problems facing LGBT students if we’re not measuring them. They’re invisible; we’re not even acknowledging that they exist.”

For youths living in places where family members and peers may send damaging messages about what it means to be LGBT, a safe space, such as a Gay-Straight Alliance, can connect them to allies and crucial support they may not otherwise have.

“There are school-level implications—such as creating Gay-Straight Alliances within schools, or engaging all youth in discussions about areas of difference and prejudice to decrease the chances of LGB youth receiving rejecting reactions from their peers,” Puckett wrote.

The student groups are needed outside the South too. Data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2015 about 40 percent of LGBT high school students in the U.S. had seriously considered suicide and 29 percent had attempted suicide during the previous 12 months.

“It’s critical to create change in personal and individual attitudes towards sexual minorities and to advocate for change within the structural and social/political atmospheres that perpetuate heterosexism so that we can see more positive environments for youth overall,” Puckett wrote.