A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests a link between states legalizing same-sex marriage and fewer attempted suicides among gay, lesbian and bisexual teens.
The two-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established marriage rights for same-sex couples is coming up in June. And even before that, 35 states (including Washington, in 2012) passed laws that did the same.
Those laws not only led to more than 100,000 marriages, but a new study suggests they also may have reduced suicide attempts among gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers.
In states that granted same-sex marriage rights before 2015, researchers from Harvard and Johns Hopkins University found a 14 percent decrease in self-reported suicide attempts among teenagers who identify as sexual minorities. In their study, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers didn’t see the same downward trend in other states.
Julia Raifman, a co-author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the results “suggest we should consider the significant child health impacts” of policy. Raifman also noted that the study did not address suicide attempts among teens who identify as transgender.
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The report used data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, a biennial survey developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among other questions, it asks high-school students if they have attempted suicide during the past 12 months. Survey respondents in some states also had the option of identifying themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or “not sure.” The researchers looked at data from 1999 to 2015 in 47 states — including 32 of the 35 states that have legalized same-sex marriage. (Washington wasn’t among states included in the study — see below.)
Raifman isn’t sure what impact the federal legalization had on states where same-sex couples couldn’t marry before the Supreme Court ruling. That data won’t be released until summer 2018.
And while the study offered no definitive information on what may have caused the decrease, Raifman said that “one thing that’s nice is that we can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing.”
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And what about Washington?
According to David Johnson, public information officer for the Washington State Department of Health, Washington doesn’t use the Youth Risk Behavior survey, so data from our state wasn’t used in the JAMA report. Johnson also said there isn’t any definitive proof that Washington’s same-sex marriage ruling had any impact on suicide attempts or deaths by suicide for LGBT youths overall. (Death certificates in Washington do not identify sexual orientation.)
Here is what we do know about suicide for youth and the greater population in Washington:
• From 2006 to 2010, young people died by suicide in Washington at a higher rate than the nation as a whole (8.2 per 100,000 vs. 6.9 per 100,000).
• Forty-nine percent of students who were bullied because of perceptions about their sexuality experienced “suicidal ideation,” according to the 2014 Washington Healthy Youth Survey.
• On average, there are three suicides a day in Washington — and our overall suicide rate is 11 percent higher than the national average.
To prevent youth suicides, the state has a plan that includes integrating information about social and emotional health into schools and early-learning programs, said Johnson. When it comes to teens who identify as sexual minorities, the state says creating a protective network within schools can help.
“Smaller schools or schools in rural areas could partner with other schools or LGBTQ agencies who could foster discussion,” Johnson wrote in an email. “LGBT teens face unique challenges.”