LGBTQ teens more likely to consider suicide at a younger age, study finds
Children who are gay, bisexual, or question their sexuality may be vulnerable to the idea of ââcommitting suicide at a young age, according to a new US government study.
It has long been known that adolescents belonging to sexual minorities have a higher risk of suicidal ideation and behavior than their heterosexual peers.
This includes children who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
Experts said the new findings – published online this week in the journal Pediatrics – add another layer: these children also begin to struggle with suicidal thoughts at a younger age – with an increased risk appearing as early as age 10.
In addition, they generally moved more quickly from the stage of âthinkingâ to that of actually planning the suicide.
None of this means LGBTQ children are destined for poor mental well-being, said Brian Mustanski, director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Welfare at Northwestern University in Chicago. .
âThey are at a relatively higher risk of suicide, but the majority of LGBTQ youth do well,â said Mustanski, who was not involved in the study.
That said, it’s important to recognize the increased risk and start it early, according to Mustanski.
In general, he says, children first realize their sexual attractions around the age of puberty. For children drawn to their own gender, or both, these blossoming feelings may be accompanied by distress if they were exposed to âanti-gayâ messages as a child, Mustanski said.
It is therefore essential that children understand from an early age that these attractions are normal, he said.
âThe coming out process is not easy for LGBQ youth,â said Jeremy Luk, lead researcher for the study.
But the “good news,” he said, is that, based on other research, LGBTQ teens who report high levels of acceptance from their parents or peers have a reduced risk. suicide attempt.
âIn other words, acceptance goes a long way,â said Luk, a clinical psychologist who worked for the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the start of the study.
The results are based on 1,771 American high school students who were part of a larger project to monitor their health and well-being.
About 6% said they were attracted to their own gender, both sexes, or that they âquestionedâ themselves. The survey did not ask questions about gender identity.
Overall, 26% of sexual minority teens reported having thought about suicide, double the rate of their heterosexual peers.
Likewise, nearly 17% had made a suicide plan, compared to about 5% of their peers. A total of 12% had attempted suicide, compared to 5% of heterosexual students.
Students were also asked how old they were when their thoughts of suicide first surfaced. And the increased risk in gay, bisexual, and questioning children was already apparent by the age of 10.
All of this underscores the importance of detecting suicidal behavior early and giving children the help they need, said Dr Pamela Murray, Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Current guidelines say all teens should be screened for depression every year, starting at age 12.
But screening for depression doesn’t always detect increased risk of suicide, said Murray, co-author of an editorial published with the study.
âWe realized that depression doesn’t tell the whole story, and we may need to ask specific questions about suicidability,â she said.
There is also the question of when and how to ask children about their sexual attractions, to help identify those who may be particularly vulnerable. Some doctors are already doing this, Murray said, but there are no general guidelines on this.
And of course, once kids with suicidal thoughts and behaviors are identified, “we have to be able to offer them help,” Murray said.
This can be a challenge for a variety of reasons, including the shortage of mental health care providers for children and adolescents. Demand has always exceeded supply, Murray said, and the problem worsened during the pandemic.
Then there is the fact that many children suffering from suicide do not have supportive parents.
Murray noted that children of sexual minorities are “over-represented” among the homeless population, especially because their families have rejected them.
In his own research, Mustanski found that bullying can increase the risk of suicidal behavior and self-harm in LGBTQ children. School anti-bullying programs could therefore be an important part of prevention.
And while the support of parents is essential, so is that of others in the children’s lives, Mustanski said. Support from friends and romantic partners, he noted, can improve the mental health of LGBTQ youth.
When it comes to families, Murray pointed to resources such as PFLAG, a national non-profit organization that provides education for parents on how to support their LGBTQ children.
The Trevor Project has resources for LGBTQ youth at risk of suicide.
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