LESBIAN, GAYS AND SUICIDE

RESEARCH FINDINGS, JAN BRIDGET

Abroad

Most research about lesbians and gays has been conducted in the U.S.A. All of the following references refer to U.S. research apart from Schafer (1976) which is German, Barbeler (1992) which is Australian and Vincke & van Heeringen (1998) concerns Belgium.

* Kremer & Rifkin (1969): 7 of the 25 (28%) young lesbians (aged 12 - 17 years) had made suicide attempts or gestures and another threatened suicide.

* Carmen & Blaine (1970) cited in Schneider et al, 1989: found that 27% of the 44 male Harvard students who attempted suicide between 1963 and 1967 had engaged in homosexual activities.

* Saghir, Robins, Walbran & Gentry (1970): 23% of the 100 lesbian respondents, compared with 5% of heterosexual women and 7% of the 127 gay male respondents compared with 0% of heterosexual men had attempted suicide.

Saghir, Robins, Walbran & Gentry: "...homosexual women have a high prevalence of alcohol abuse and depression. These conditions have been shown to be directly related to an increased risk of mortality from suicide."

* Liebert (1971, cited in Rofes 1983):

"Virtually every male college student who has come to my attention because of a serious, and sometimes successful, suicidal attempt, has been either overtly homosexual or, at the time of the attempt, in a panic over his inability to repress his homosexual impulses, often towards roommates."

* Martin & Lyon (1972):

"Del contemplated suicide; others have attempted it, and some have succeeded. Because of our own experience we are keenly aware of the identity crisis every Lesbian must face: that period in her life when she is forced to come to terms with the reality that she is at odds with the society in which she lives. We have known that thoughts of suicide often occur to the young woman, like Del, who cannot reconcile her actual feelings with those expected of her by her family, by her religion, or by her peers. But we had no idea how prevalent suicide is until we learned of a recent (1971) discussion involving twenty Lesbians between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-two, where it was revealed that only two had not attempted suicide when they were teenagers. It was shocking to us that eighteen out of twenty young women had been made to feel so degraded by the realization of their Lesbian identity, their self image so debased, that suicide seemed to be their only out."

* Woodruff, Clayton & Guze (1972): 50% of the 12 gay male outpatients compared with 13% of the 488 non-gay outpatients had attempted suicide.

* Roesler & Deisher (1972): 32% of 60 gay men with mean age of 20 attempted suicide at least once.

* Saghir & Robins (1973): 12% of 57 lesbians compared to 5% of 44 heterosexual women and 7% of 89 gay men compared to 0% of 40 heterosexual men had attempted suicide. Participants primarily middle class and all white.

Saghir & Robins: "Suicide attempts among the homosexual women tended to be somewhat more serious than among homosexual men."

* Schafer (1976): 28% of 151 lesbians from four large metropolitan areas in West Germany had attempted suicide.

* Clement et al (1977): in a comparison between 27 self-reported lesbians in prison, 27 staff-identified lesbians in prison and 27 heterosexual women in prison, lesbians were more likely to attempt suicide (no statistics given, cited in Harry, 1989).

* Bell & Weinberg (1978): 42% of the 293 lesbians compared with 26% of heterosexual women and 38% of the 686 gay male respondents compared to 5% of heterosexual men had attempted suicide; most suicide attempts took place before 25 years; there were higher rates among black gays and white lesbians.

* Jay & Young (1979): 39% of the 962 lesbians and 40% of the 4,329 gay male respondents had attempted or seriously contemplated suicide. 90% were white, mostly well-educated, 27% came from rural areas or small towns.

* The Southern California Women For Understanding (1982): 30% of the 1000 lesbian respondents reported concern about having seriously considered suicide.

* National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (1982): 41% of lesbian and gay youth seeking assistance at service agencies had attempted suicide. (Cited in Savin-Williams, 1994).

* Larkin Street Youth Center (homeless youth) (1984): 65% of homosexual and bisexual youth compared to 19% heterosexual youth reported ever being suicidal; gay youth had 3.5 times greater rates of suicidality than other youth.

* Martin et al (1985): in a follow-up study of Woodruff, Clayton & Guze, more gay men completed suicide than non-gay men.

* Kourany (1987): in his study of psychiatrists, found that those who had homosexual youth among their clients considered the risk for suicide to be generally higher among these youth; the psychiatrists felt that ego-dystonic homosexuals were at a higher risk for suicide. They also considered suicidal gestures by homosexual youth to be more serious and more lethal than similar ones by heterosexual youth.

* Bradford & Ryan (1988): 18% of their 1925 lesbian respondents had attempted suicide - 35% had rare thoughts of suicide, 19% thought about suicide sometimes and 2% thought about it often; higher rates were found among young lesbians, black and Latino lesbians and working class lesbians.

* Remafedi (1987) 29 young men aged 15-19 (non-clinical): 34% attempted, 31% previous psychiatric hospitalization, 48% run away, 58% regularly abused substances.

* Martin & Hetrick (1988) of 480 young gay men, 21% attempted suicide.

* Schneider, Farberow & Kruks (1989): 55% of 108 young gay men experienced suicide ideation, 20% attempted suicide; highest among racial/ethnic men. Attempters were significantly younger when they first became aware of their homoerotic feelings. At the time of their first attempt the youths felt hopeless, worthless, alienated, lonely and helpless.

* Hunter (1990): 41% of the 100 young lesbians and 34% of 400 young gay men who attended the Hetrick Martin Institute in New York had attempted suicide; most of their clients are poor and working class; suicide attempts were higher among black and Latino youth.

* Remafedi, Farrow & Deisher (1991): 30% of 137 gay and bisexual males between fourteen and twenty-one years of age had attempted suicide. Attempters were more likley than non-attempters to be feminine or undifferentiated, and less likely to be masculine or androgynous.

* Kruks (1991): 53% of homeless gay youth had attempted suicide.

* Uribe & Harbeck (1991): 50% of young gay men (37) and 23% of young lesbians (13) attempted suicide; a high percentage of participants were minority ethnic (60%).

* Magnuson (1992) 77 young gay men, 26% attempted suicide.

* Barbeler (1992): conducted research with 200 young lesbians in Sydney, Australia, of whom 47.5% had attempted suicide.

* Hammelman (1993): 29% (same for each sex) of 48 lesbian and gay youths surveyed attempted suicide. 96% of the group were white and belonged to lesbian/gay social groups. 57% of the lesbians and 43% of the gay men had seriously considered suicide.

* D'Augelli, Hershberger (1993): of 194 lesbian and gay youth aged 21 and younger, 42% (no sex differences) acknowledged suicide attempts.

* Herdt & Boxer (1993): 29% of the lesbian and gay youth attending Horizons, a social services support agency for lesbian and gay youth in Chicago, had attempted suicide. More than HALF of the young lesbians had attempted suicide compared with 20% of the young gay men.

* Rotheram-Borus, Hunter, et al (1994): 39% of 138 young gay and bisexual males aged 14 to 19 years in New York had attempted suicide; an additional 37% had thought about suicide every day for at least one week; nearly 60% reported suicide ideation during the week before the data was collected. The study group consisted mainly of minority ethnic young men (only 11% were white).

* Proctor & Groze (1994) 221 LGB under 21 years - 71.9% male, from 56 LGB groups around USA and Canada: 40.3% attempted suicide.

* Bagley & Trembaly (1997) 750 male, 18-27 year olds, 13% gay/bisexual: 62.5% of suicide attempters

13.9 times more likely to attempt suicide.

* Hershberger & Pilkington (1997) 194 lesbian, gay and bisexual 15-21 year olds (73% male, 32% female) - from 14 LGB groups across USA: 40% males reported at least one suicide attempt; 43% of females reported a suicide attempt.

* Jordan, Vaughan, Woodworth (1997) 34 responses from local youth groups: 58.8% male, 50% white, 35% hispanic: 47.1% considered suicide, 35.3% attempted.

* Faulkner & Craanston (1998): Massachusets Department of Education: 3054 randomly selected 9th-12th graders students from 59 high schools in 1993: 6.4% reported same-sex contact. LGB youth 3 times more likely to report not going to school because they felt unsafe; more than twice as likely to report having been threatened or injured with weapon at school; nearly 50% more likely to report having seriously considered suicide in the previous year; twice as many LGB students reported attempted suicide at least once in past year; eight times as many homosexual as heterosexual reported having attempted suicide four or more times (28.6% heterosexual students compared with 41.7% homosexual seriously attempted suicide; 4.7% of heterosexual youth who attempted suicide required medical attention compared with 20% of the homosexual students.

* Garofalo, Wolf (1998): 4159 randomly selected 9th-12th graders from Massachusetts schools from 1995: 2.5% identified as LGB. 35.3% of LGB reported suicide attempts in previous 12 months compared to 9.9% of non-LGB population; in previous 30 days, 25.1% of LGB compared to 7.1% of non-LGBs threatened with weapon at school; 25.3% LGB students reported missing schol because of fear whilst 5.1% of non-LGB students reported same.

* Remafedi & French (1998): 36,254 students from 1987 Adolescent Health Survey from Minnesota public schools (10% of student body of 7th-12th graders). Of these 275 self-identified as bisexual, 119 as mostly homosexual. Compared to demographically-matched sample of 336 self-identified heterosexual students: 31.2% of LGB male students reported suicide ideation and 28.1% attempts compared with 20.1% of heterosexual males reporting suicide ideation and 4.2% attempts; 36.4% of female LB students reported suicide ideation and 20.5% attempts compared with 34.4% of heterosexual female who reported suicide ideation and 14.5% attempts.

* DuRant, Krowchuk, Sinal (1998) 21,297 8th-12th graders in Vermont. Of sexually active male students, 8.7% reported same-sex sexual experience, 4.9% of sexually active female students reported same-sex sexual experience. "Male students with multiple male sexual partners were significantly more likely to be victims of threatened with physical violence, suffer property victimization at school and be absent from school because of fear" "Substance abuse on school property and reported suicide attempts were also more commonly observed among male students with multiple same-sex sexual partners."

* Vincke & van Heeringen (1998) Belgium: young gay men 12.4% attempted compared to 5.9% heterosexual young men; young lesbians 25% compared to 12.4% heterosexual young women.

n.b. there has been consistent denial of the higher levels of suicide ideation and attempts by LGB young people compared with heterosexual youth by mainstream suicidologists - both in the USA and in Britain. For example, a whole supplement of the Journal Suicide and Life-Threatening-Behaviour, Vol 25, supplement 64-71, 1995 was dedicated to criticising previous research on this issue with LGB young people. Indeed, one paper, by Shaffer, Fisher, Hicks (1995), which conducted 'post-mortem examinations of 120 adolescents who had completed suicide, suggested that only 3 (2.5%) were apparently homosexual. Information about sexual orientation of dead adolescents was usually obtained from a parent, adult member of household in which victim was living at time of death or from a sibling or friend nominated by parent or caretaker or at least one school teacher nominated by parent/caretaker or by school principal. The conclusion of the Supplement was that there is no significantly higher rate of suicide among homosexual as compared to heterosexual youth. Bagley & Tremblay had submitted their findings for the same supplement but their paper was not accepted. Bagley & Tremblay's research met the standards to which the other articles were critical

Similarly, Hawton (1986), one of Britain's leading experts, only referred to homosexuality once in his book on adolescent suicide: "None of the adolescents in the Oxford series expressed anxieties concerning homosexuality. Presumably such fears occasionally lead to suicide attempts, especially among boys, although increasingly permissive attitudes toward homosexuality may have made this less likely."

Britain

* London Gay Teenage Project (Trenchard & Warren, 1984): 19% of their 415 respondents had attempted suicide.

* Bye (cited in Plummer 1989): 40% of her 95 (isolated) young respondents had attempted suicide.

* Parents' Friend Enquiry (cited in Plummer 1989): 55% of the youth sample had attempted suicide.

* Bridget (1988) - 43% of lesbians (14 participants) in housing pilot study in Leicester had attempted suicide;

* Woods (1992) conducted a survey of older (34) and younger (38) lesbians in Manchester. Her findings included:

Extreme stress: older lesbians 57% younger 68%

Periods of depression: older 47% younger 45%

Deliberate self harm: older 37% younger 43%

Thought about suicide: older 23% younger 40%

Attempted suicide: older 7% younger 21%.

* Bridget (1991-93) conducted depth interviews with 20 lesbians who grew up in isolated areas. Most were aged 25 years and below. Her findings included:-

17 out of 20 (85%) experienced long periods of depression.

8 out of 20 (40%) experienced periods of anxiety.

14 out of 20 (70%) attempted suicide (2, 6 times each; 2, 5 times each; 1, 4 times; 2, 3 times each; 2, 2 times each; 5, once; 8 (40%) were hospitalised after their attempts; at least 3 have made further, serious, attempts and been hospitalised as a result). Attempters were twice as likely to be masculine.

10 of the 20 (50%) had seen a psychiatrist.

10 out of 20 (50%) abused themselves in other ways, e.g. cutting up with razor blades, banging fist against the wall/putting through window; biting chunks out of self; throwing self against wall/down stairs.

17 of the 20 (85%) used alcohol, 10 (50%) having serious problems i.e. passing out, getting arrested for being drunk and disorderly, being hospitalised for drink problem, attempting suicide whilst under the influence of alcohol.

10 of the 20 (50%) had used illegal drugs; acid was involved in one of the suicide attempts, as was alcohol.

11 of the 20 (55%) had bad eating patterns or disorders - over-eating, under-eating, anorexia, bulimia.

11 of the 20 (55%) had been homeless.

10 of the 20 (50%) had been sexually abused or raped, two having been both sexually abused and raped.

* Y.G.L.I.B. (1994) - 26% of lesbian and gay youth (27 participants) had attempted suicide.

* McColl (1995) - surveyed youth workers from 21 lesbian and gay youth groups who estimated that at least one in five of the young lesbians and gays inflicted self-harm including serious suicide attempts.

* Rivers (1996) - 46% of lesbian and gay respondents in study on school bullying (85 participants) attempted suicide, included many repeat attempts.

* Roberts (1996) 39 young gay and bisexual men aged under 25: over half had had suicidal felings or had attempted suicide; one quarter had self-harmed.

* Geraghty (1998) 117 young lesbians aged 16-21 years from across Britain. One-third attempted suicide and a similar proportion reported presence of suicidal ideation during the previous week.

* Mullen (1999) 169 15-25 year old LGB people 59% male, 41% female; 73% from Reading; 80% white, 2.4% Asian, 1.8% Black, 4% Irish: 15% had had a mental health problem; 55% had thought about suicide, 22% had attempted suicide; 33% deliberately self-harmed

* Bridget (1999) 15 LGB people aged 30 and below who lived or grew up in Calderdale (only 3 were aged 26 or over): 8 male, 7 female: 87% experienced periods of depression; 80% had had suicidal thoughts; 13% had attempte suicide. This research is on-going and a further five young people aged 25 years and below have been added bringing a total of 20. The statistics have now changed to: 55% female, 45% male: 85% experienced long periods of depression, 75% had had suicidal thoughts; 25% had attempted suicide.

* John & Patrick (1999) 137 LGB people living in Glasgow, half female, half male, mainly 38 aged 25 or below (twice as many males as females): 66% had experienced depression (52% lesbians, 48% gay men); 47% (51 female, 40 male) had experienced anxiety;27% self-harmed; 24% had attempted suicide (41% lesbian, 59% male)

* Butler, Garrard, Muir-Mackenzie, Orme, Prentice (2000): 59 lesbians living in Devon; 10 aged 19-25: more than 80%of all participants (49) described themselves as having had mental health distress including emotional distress/confusion (31), anxiety/depression (36), self-harm (18) and attempted suicide (11). Of the respondents aged 21-25 33% reported they had both attempted suicide and self-harmed in other ways

 

MAIN POINTS REGARDING LESBIANS, GAYS AND SUICIDE

WARNING: Greater visibility and 'tolerance' of homosexuality means that lesbian and gay youth are more likely to become aware of their sexual orientation at a younger age. Identification of sexual orientation at an early age has a strong correlation with suicide, not least because a) it means that they are likely to be isolated for a longer period but b) it is happening at a vulnerable time, when self-esteem is being developed/demolished, hence the effect of discrimination will be more severe. It is also happening at a time when young homosexuals are dependent on parents.

Greater visibility also means more harassment of homosexuals of all ages but this is particularly important for lesbian and gay youth: evidence suggests that the level of abuse experienced at school is on the increase (Camden, 1991; D'Augelli, 1993). Add to this the hopelessness engendered in young gay men due to the AIDS epidemic and the likelihood is that suicide, and related emotional problems as well as alcohol/drug abuse, among lesbian and gay youth will be on the increase. Savin-Williams (1994),D'Augelli (1993), D'Augelli & Hershberger (1993) and Remafedi et al (1991) also predict that lesbian and gay youth will label themselves homosexual earlier experiencing greater stress and vulnerability unless given support.

© J. Bridget/Lesbian Information Service, 2000