A new study shows teen suicide attempts dropped after states passed same-sex marriage laws. In the years before the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally, the individual states that passed same-sex marriage laws saw an immediate drop in teen suicide attempts, researchers at Harvard and Johns Hopkins University found.
Published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, the study compared rates of adolescent suicide attempt in states that adopted same-sex marriage to the rates in states that didn’t. Researchers estimate that legalizing same-sex marriage was associated with a reduction of more than 134,000 teen suicide attempts per year.
This doesn’t mean that legalizing same-sex marriage directly causes a decline in teen suicide rates — the study wasn’t meant to figure out if the suicide rates fell because same-sex marriage policies were passed but rather to discover if they fell at all. Yet it’s possible, said study author Julia Raifman, that the rates dropped thanks to a lessening of social stigma.
“These are high school students, so they aren’t getting married anytime soon, for the most part,” said Raifman, a researcher who studies epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a Monday statement. “Still, permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. There may be something about having equal rights — even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them — that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.”
The study analyzed more than 300,000 teens’ responses to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, an annual survey of high school students in 47 states by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2015 (the year the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationally).
Suicide is the third-most-common cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the CDC. About 4,600 people in that age group kill themselves each year, the CDC reports, and more than 150,000 get medical help for self-inflicted injuries in ERs around the country.
And suicide attempts are even more prevalent among young people who identify as sexual minorities — while 6 percent of heterosexual students taking part in the Youth Risk survey said they’d attempted suicide one or more times in the past 12 months, nearly a third of students who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual said they had attempted suicide.
After states passed same-sex marriage laws, suicide attempts fell by 7 percent among high school students regardless of their sexual orientation, the study found. But that drop was even greater for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, whose suicide attempts decreased by 14 percent for at least two years following the laws’ passage.
In states that didn’t pass same-sex marriage laws, there was no change.
The study also looked at whether campaigns pushing for same-sex legalization were associated with falling suicide rates. But “[the reduction] wasn’t something that happened in the few years of lead-up to same-sex marriage policies,” Raifman told VICE News. “It really seemed it was a matter of what happened after states passed same-sex marriage policies.”
The study also didn’t examine the impact of same-sex marriage laws on suicide attempt rates among transgender adolescents, Raifman said, because very little data exists on transgender kids.
And though same-sex marriage is now legal in every state, there are still many other policies at the state level that could affect the health — and lives — of LGBT people, Raifman said. “I think it’s good to recognize this is a real concern, that this is elevated among LGB adolescents, and it’s something that policymakers and the public should consider when we think about policies that affect [LGBT] rights.”