Suicide, social stigma and same-sex marriage | Sex in the Suburbs

Amy Johnson. Contributed photo

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in U.S. young people ages 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so when the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics publishes a study that shows a significant decrease in suicide attempts in young people, it’s worth taking note.

A study published last month stated that legalized same-sex marriage saw a drop in suicide attempts among high school students. The effect was doubled for lesbian, gay and bisexual students.

Rates dropped 14 percent for those students and 7 percent overall, according to PBS.

States that did not legalize same-sex marriage did not show a drop in suicide rates amongst young people.

Suicide attempts are four times more common among LGBT students than straight students, according to the Trevor Project. This link between public policy and mental health is significant.

Experts are uncertain whether the effects have to do with an increased feeling of support socially amongst LGBT youth due to the visibility of the issue, or if the general idea of marriage being legal communicated a sense of normalcy that positively affected mental health.

Either way, the finding is significant.

Feelings of connection to community and family provide a protective effect against suicide, whereas isolation and conflict with peers and family increase the risk for suicide attempts, according to the CDC.

What does this have to do with Federal Way?

I did a quick check of high school web pages on the Federal Way Public Schools website.

While more than one local high school may have a Gay Straight Alliance Club, the only website where one is listed publicly under clubs is Federal Way High School.

Kudos Federal Way High School for listing this club along with every other club in the school.

This simple act normalizes students’ interest in issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, and publicly provides a safe space for folks to gather.

If this seems minor to you, think again. Silence speaks volumes. Silence and omission of listing a club can lead to vulnerable students assuming they are to be silent and invisible themselves, believing there is no public place for them to belong, and increasing their sense of isolation.

There are other things you can do, even if you don’t have the ability to change a website or a school culture.

• Help young people learn non-violent ways of problem-solving and conflict resolution.

• Volunteer with Communities In Schools as a Mentor, or with another organization serving youth, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts or the Boys & Girls Club.

• Support local organizations that provide services to LGBT students. Give a donation to your local GSA or the Rainbow Center or Oasis Youth Center in Tacoma. Support the Washington Chapter of GLSEN, which supports local GSAs and provides education and training to school districts and educational organizations.

• Take an internal inventory. Are you welcoming of LGBT and transgender youth in your home? Classroom? Faith community? Organization? Workplace? If so, how do you communicate this? Are you truly welcoming or simply tolerant? Being honest about where you are can help you take steps to where you want to be.

Legalizing same-sex marriage had a significantly positive impact on suicide attempts among high school students.

Now that we know this, don’t we owe it to our local students to do even more?

Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in sex education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. She can be reached at comments@diligentjoy.com.