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social sciences

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Most of the literature concerning glbtq people and suicide focuses on lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Studies indicate that they are at significantly greater risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors than heterosexual youth. Gay and lesbian adults also report a history of more suicidal ideation and attempts than their heterosexual counterparts. people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are also at greater risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts.

In addition to the general risk factors for suicide, such as depression and substance abuse, glbtq people also face additional stressors, such as discrimination, which put them at an increased risk for suicidal behavior.

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Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth

In 1989, the Department of Health and Human Services published a report on youth suicide that sparked a great deal of controversy. This report estimated that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are at two to three times greater risk for suicide than heterosexual youth and that they may account for 30% of all youth suicides. This report, like others reaching similar conclusions, became a center of controversy, prompting charges from many conservative groups that the findings promote an "agenda" that they do not agree with. Some valid critiques of the report concerning methodology have prompted other researchers to continue to try to improve our understanding about suicide and lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.

Since the 1989 report, many other studies have been conducted on the topic of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth suicide. Findings generally support the contention that lgb youth report more suicide attempts than heterosexual youth. However, studies of completed youth suicides often find that very few lgb youth commit suicide.

For example, Shaffer and colleagues (1995) conducted a psychological autopsy study and reported that only 3 of the youth of their sample of 120 were lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Compared to reported suicide attempts by this population of youth, 2.5% seems rather low. This discrepancy has raised questions about the accuracy of either set of findings.

It has been argued, for example, that suicide attempts among lgb youths have been overestimated. But it is much more likely that lgb youth suicides are underreported than that lgb suicide attempts are overestimated. The underreporting occurs because many youth have not disclosed their sexual orientation or family members may not be willing to offer this information postmortem.

Methodological Issues

Research on glbtq suicide is often criticized for methodological problems. It is true that most studies have relied on convenience samples, such as members of glbtq organizations. While this is not the most representative sample, it is difficult to obtain reliable estimates of suicide among glbtq people because it is impossible to get a random, representative sample of them.

Another problem lies with the way that sexual orientation is defined. Are we asking about people who self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual? Or are we asking about people who engage in same-sex behaviors? Many people engage in behavior that does not conform to their identity. These methodological difficulties have made it impossible for us to have a reliable national frequency of suicide attempts or completed suicides by glbtq people.

Researchers have recognized the limitations of past studies and have attempted to attain more representative samples. For example, Bagley and Tremblay (1997) conducted a study of young men (ages 18-27) in Canada. They used stratified random sampling, which resulted in a sub-sample of about 13% gay and bisexual men. Gay and bisexual men were 14 times more likely to report suicide attempts than heterosexual men.

Several more recent studies have sampled high school students. Russell and Joyner (2001), for example, conducted the first national study on sexual orientation and suicide risk among youth. Their sample consisted of high school students throughout the United States. Of the 11,940 youth surveyed, 7% reported same-sex attraction or relationships. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth in this sample were twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to attempt suicide. Fifteen percent of youth who reported suicide attempts were lesbian, gay, or bisexual. However, it is still possible that many suicidal youth were not captured by these studies since the most troubled youth may drop out of school.

Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adults

The findings of increased suicide risk among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth also hold true for gay male adults. Herrell and colleagues (1999) conducted a large twin study on suicide and military veterans. They examined twin pairs of which one twin reported having had sexual relations with men and the other did not. Gay twins were two times more likely to report thoughts of death, more than four times as likely to report suicidal ideation, and more than six times as likely to report attempted suicide than their heterosexual twin brothers. These high rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts could not be explained by substance abuse or mental health problems.

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