Sexual Orientation
and Suicide Risk in Adolescents

The Research

For at least 20 years, the role of sexual orientation and gender identity as risk factors for adolescent suicidal behavior has been debated without reaching consensus as to the degree of risk.

The most extensive study to date comes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the most comprehensive study of adolescents conducted in the United States. The conclusion from that study was that youths with same-sex orientation are more than two times more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. (1) It has also been established in many studies that LGBTQ youth are at a slightly greater risk for suicide and experience a significantly greater risk for non-fatal suicidal behavior. However, since death certificates do not include information on sexual orientation and since psychological autopsies are rarely performed, it is impossible to determine the number of deaths by suicide among sexual minority youth.

Risk Factors

Some of the reasons for this elevated risk include peer rejection, serious problems with parents, emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse by family and/or peers, and vicarious traumatization (exposure to abuse, anti-gay slurs by family and friends directed at others perceived to be LGBTQ.)

In addition, self-reporting by youth who identify themselves as having same-sex romantic attractions or relationships indicate that their critical risk factors for their suicidal behavior include substance abuse, depression, hopelessness, victimization, and/or the suicide of a family member or close friend.

These risk factors are common to ALL suicidal adolescents. The newest research seems to be indicating that the groups at highest risk are the transsexual youth who tend to be universally rejected, and youths who are gender non-conforming (very “feminine” boys and “masculine” girls) no matter what their sexual orientation.

Cultural scripts of gender play a huge role in adolescent’s decisions about suicidal behavior, and cultural messages are particularly powerful for those in the process of defining their personal identities. While it is certainly important that the special issues of LGBTQ youth are addressed, this must be done carefully so as not to “normalize” the suicidal behavior, that is to communicate that LGBTQ are likely to become suicidal. Also, there are many other youths at risk for suicide and ALL adolescents who have the risk factors mentioned above deserve careful assessment, intervention and prevention efforts.

(1) Russell, Stephen T., PhD, and Joyner, Kara, PhD. Adolescent Sexual Orientation and Suicide Risk: Evidence from a National Study, American Journal of Public Health, pp.1276-1281, August 2001, Vol. 91, No.8.