In a report published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed how legalizing same-sex marriage led to a decrease in overall suicide attempt rates, comparing statistics from before and after policy implementation. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage federal law.
In states that legalized same-sex marriage before Obergefell, the team saw teen suicide attempts drop by 134,000 per year.
“These are high school students so they aren’t getting married any time soon, for the most part,” said lead author Julia Raifman, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins. “Still, permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation.”
The report shows the effect social policies can have on behavior, according to the authors.
“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.”
Suicide is the second most common cause of death among people ages 15 to 24 in the Unites States, and data shows that suicide attempts requiring medical attention among adolescents increased 47 percent between 2009 and 2015. Twenty-nine percent of LGBT students reported attempting suicide within the past year – a rate far eclipsing the 6 percent of heterosexual adolescents who attempted suicide.
The team reviewed data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System – a survey supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – which included data from 32 of 35 states that enacted same-sex marriage policies between 2004 and Jan. 1, 2015.
Same-sex marriage legalization at the state level led to a 7 percent reduction in suicide attempts among high school students overall, while LGBT adolescents saw a 14 percent reduction.
“It’s not easy to be an adolescent, and for adolescents who are just realizing they are sexual minorities, it can be even harder – that’s what the data on disparities affecting gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents tell us,” Raifman said.
Raifman added that sexual minorities are also at greater risk of substance abuse, HIV and depression. Despite these population-level health risks, she says there are no programs aimed at reducing suicide attempts among LGBT students.
“We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views,” she said. “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.”