Gay-Straight Alliances and High School Suicide Rates

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Gay-Staight Alliances are surprisingly effective at reducing suicide. Image by jeltskovski.

Could Gay-Straight Alliances in high school be one answer to reducing suicide rates in kids?

Call us a morbid bunch, but sociologists have been researching suicide since Emile Durkheim studied suicide rates in 1897. Durkheim demonstrated that low social integration led to anomie, or a lack of social integration, and higher rates of self-murder.

Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools attempt to create an environment that more fully integrates sexual minorities. Such alliances are controversial for religious reasons, but public health researchers now have evidence that these student groups reduce suicides among the highest risk high school students.

The Study of the Impact of Gay-Straight Alliances

In an study of the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey (BCAHS), Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc of the University of British Columbia School of Nursing, and colleagues investigated the impact of Gay-Straight Aliances and school policy on homophobic discrimination, despair, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.

In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Saewyc states that the reason British Columbia was chosen was “BC Adolescent Health Survey is one of the few regularly repeating adolescent health surveys that has included questions about sexual orientation since the early 1990’s; there are very few other large population-level youth health surveys that do the same...”  She notes that in the United States, Massachusetts and Minnesota are exceptions.

Categorization of Students by Sexual Identity

Researchers divided high school students into the same groups used by previous researchers.  The groups “included 100% heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly homosexual, 100% homosexual (gay/lesbian), and not sure. The 100% homosexual (gay/lesbian), mostly homosexual, and bisexual youth were grouped together to form an LGB sample for the present analyses.” 

The researchers studied the “mostly heterosexual” separately because “prior research that suggests this group differs from both exclusively heterosexual and also LGB groups in demographics and health disparities.”

The researchers found that “sexual minority youth appeared to be sparsely and randomly distributed across the province.”  The groups were statistically weighted as follows “100% heterosexual (weighted n = 10,408 for boys; weighted n = 10,577 for girls) as compared to mostly heterosexual (weighted n = 840 for boys; weighted n = 914 for girls) or LGB (weighted n = 359 for boys; weighted n = 364 for girls).”

Measures of Despair, Discrimination, and Suicidality

Researchers measured discrimination as a yes or no response to the question of whether or not the student felt he or she  had been “discriminated against or treated unfairly because of your sexual orientation (being or thought to be gay or lesbian)?” in the last twelve months.

They placed measures of despair on a scale that measured responses to questions such as whether or not the student “felt so sad, discouraged, hopeless, or had so many problems that they wondered if anything was worthwhile in the past 30 days.” The researchers also placed thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts on a scale ranging from zero times to “6 or more times” over the last year.

The Findings: Suicide Attempts

Of the three groups, LGB, heterosexual and mostly heterosexual, the LGB group and mostly heterosexual groups showed higher rates on measures of despair, discrimination, and suicidal ideation.  The most alarming difference between heterosexual and LGB and mostly heterosexual high school students was in suicide attempts. The authors report, “1 in 4 LGB boys or girls and 1 in 10 mostly heterosexual students had attempted suicide in the past year, while fewer than 5% of exclusively heterosexual students had done so.”

GSAs cut suicide rates by half or more for LGB youth. Image by xenia.

However, in schools with active Gay-Straight Alliances, the numbers were far less dire. Overall, the study documented a reduction of suicide rates by “half or more” among LGBT students in schools with Gay-Straight Alliances.

LGB boys in schools having both a GSA and an anti-homophobic bullying policy reported significantly lower odds of discrimination, while LGB girls reported significantly lower odds of discrimination, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. Among mostly heterosexual students, having both a GSA and an explicit policy was only linked to lower sexual orientation discrimination for girls.”

Even the researchers were surprised at the strong effect of Gay-Straight Alliances. Saewyc states, “We didn’t expect the reduction in odds to be so large, no, especially since this was capturing information from schools all across the province, and a variety of GSAs and policies.”

Using Labels to Harass

One intriguing finding of Dr. Saewyc’s research was that 70% of students who experienced “anti-gay harassment” identified as heterosexual.  Saewyc’s explanation to Decoded Science captures both the reason behind this bullying and a goal of Gay-Straight Alliances:

Unfortunately, it is fairly common for adolescents to try to exercise social power over others through being mean-and using negative labels through rumours and gossip, even when false, for example. If being gay, lesbian or bisexual were recognized in all our communities as normal human variations, like having brown eyes, or being left-handed, or being able to run fast, or liking broccoli, it would be hard for it to be used as an insult, even for people who aren’t gay-can you imagine teens harassing someone with brown eyes by spreading a rumour that they really have blue eyes? But as long as society considers being gay or bisexual a negative thing, then those labels-and negative harassment that comes with those labels-can be used to hurt others.

Implications for Policy

The naysayers, such as some church groups, will need to rethink their opposition to Gay-Straight Alliances as the lives of teenagers are at stake.  Continuing research to pinpoint the mechanisms at play and methods to make even more of an impact are necessary.  Meanwhile, if you are interested in forming a Gay-Straight Alliance, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) provides information and a registry.

The research of Dr. Saewyc and colleagues provides more justification for inclusiveness or “social integration” to use a term that hearkens back to the work of Emile Durkheim.

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