According to a new study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, giving gay couples the right to marry has benefits beyond marriage equality. After studying data spanning almost 20 years, researchers from Johns Hopkins University determined that legalizing same-sex marriage on the state level helped lower the rate of teen suicides.
Because suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents—and more than 29 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens reported at least one attempt in the last month, according to the CDC's 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) data—researchers were interested in understanding the impact of same-sex marriage policies on mental health. They analyzed data from 762,678 adolescents who participated in the YRBSS between the years 1999 and 2015 to understand trends in teen suicide. They also conducted a state-by-state analysis, looking at the places that passed same-sex marriage policies between 2004 and 2015.
In the general high school population, the study found that before the implementation of state same-sex marriage laws, 8.6 percent of students reported one or more suicide attempts in the past year. When they concentrated on LGB teens, that figure shot up to 28.5 percent.
After same-sex marriage laws were implemented, those figures dropped significantly. According to the study's results, "the proportion of high school students reporting suicide attempts in the past year decreased by 0.6 percentage points, equivalent to a 7 percent decline." For LGB students, "these results are equivalent to a 14 percent relative decline," the authors write.
These effects persisted for two years, they continue, "suggesting that social and political backlash does not have the effect of worsening mental health outcomes in this window." Driving home how important these findings are, researchers also note that a 0.6 percentage point decline would be equivalent to an estimated 134,446 teens choosing not to attempt to end their own life each year.
"These are high school students so they aren't getting married any time soon, for the most part," said Julia Raifman, a post-doctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and lead author on the study, in a press release. "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."
Permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation.
"We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views," she continued. "Policymakers need to be aware that policies on sexual minority rights can have a real effect on the mental health of adolescents. The policies at the top can dictate in ways both positive and negative what happens further down."
While the results of this study are encouraging, they don't change the fact that LGBTQ teens have it rough. Last year, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network released a report that found LGBTQ students in middle and high school "experienced more victimization based on sexual orientation, gender expression, gender, appearance/body size, and disability than non-LGBTQ students. They also more frequently experienced sexual harassment, having rumors/lies spread about them, property damage, and cyberbullying."
David W. Bond is a licensed clinical social worker and vice president of programs at The Trevor Project. He says the passage of any equality measure, whether it's statewide or country-wide, can be an indication of the growing acceptance of the LGBTQ community. "It's really that growing acceptance, which combats rejection, that's going to lead to reduced risk for negative mental health outcomes like suicide attempts," he says.
"When jurisdictions pass marriage equality or transgender equality measures, whether it's sports or bathrooms rulings, it does have an impact," Bond continues. "Everybody's paying attention to it and everybody's following it. We feel rejection together, but we also rally together when there's a triumph, whether it's a ban on conversion therapy, appropriate gender access to restrooms for transgender people or marriage equality."
Bond says these policy changes are indications that times are changing. "And in those changing times, as we grow more toward acceptance, we'll have better outcomes for LGBTQ youth across the country."
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please contact The Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386.