Suicide is a serious mental health issue for teens; but among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) adolescents it occurs more often than among their heterosexual peers. If you’re the parent of a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender teen, you might be wondering why he or she may be at higher risk for suicide and whether there’s anything you can do to prevent it.
GLBT Teens, Mental Health, And Suicide
Studies consistently show that youth who identify as non-heterosexual have significantly higher suicide rates than heterosexual peers. For example, 28 percent of gay and bisexual boys in grades 7 through 12 reported attempting suicide at least once, compared to just 4 percent of heterosexuals. In girls, the suicide attempt rate was 20 percent for gay and bisexual teens and about 15 percent among heterosexuals. In addition, most suicide attempts among gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals happen during adolescence and young adulthood.
Simply identifying as a GLBT youth does not mean a teenager has a mental health disorder. However, some face challenges that heterosexual teens may not. Non-heterosexual teens are often the targets of bullying. It’s not uncommon for kids who are bullied to develop depression, a significant risk factor for suicide. In one study, bullied GLBT teens were more likely to report depression symptoms than non-gay peers. The same study also revealed that about 25 percent of high school senior boys who reported they were targeted for being gay said they had considered suicide, while only 8 percent of non-bullied students had thought about it.
External Factors That Affect The Mental Health Of GLBT Teens
The state in which a GLBT adolescent lives can impact mental health, suggests one study. The study found that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals living in states that had banned gay marriage showed significantly higher rates of mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol abuse than those living in states without anti-gay amendments. This suggests the general attitude toward their orientation, in their particular environment, may play a role in mental health issues.
A GLBT teen’s emotional well-being can also be affected by whether his or her family takes an attitude of acceptance or rejection towards the teen’s identity. For instance, researchers found that young gay and bisexual adults who reported high levels of family rejection during their teen years were eight times more likely to have attempted suicide.
Even among gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender youth, some may have a higher risk for suicidal behaviors. Teens who are runaways, involved in the juvenile justice system, or living in foster care may be more vulnerable because they typically have fewer support systems than other GLBT youth.
Preventing Suicide In Teens
Public awareness campaigns have been aimed at inspiring hope in GLBT youth. For example, the It Gets Better project has posted more than 50,000 user-created videos to encourage teens and young adults who are rejected, bullied, or victimized because of their sexual orientation or behavior. While this campaign and others like it can inspire these teenagers, it’s not enough to overcome the pain or depression that some feel. At least two teens who had created and shared It Gets Better videos later committed suicide.
Get immediate help for suicidal thoughts or actions. Never assume a teen talking about suicide or making suicidal gestures in an attempt to get attention. If you know a teen is feeling suicidal, don’t wait to get help. Take him or her to the nearest hospital ER, call a local mental health clinic for an urgent appointment, or call the 24-hour National Suicide Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Know the signs. Often (but not always) a depressed teenager will show signs that he or she is thinking about taking his or her own life.
Warning Signs Of Suicide
- Making statements like “I’d be better off dead,” “Things would be better if I weren’t here,” or “I wish I could disappear for good.”
- Talking or joking about suicide
- Writing poems or stories about death or suicide
- Talking about death as a positive thing
- Giving away valued personal possessions
Get your teen into mental health treatment.Thinking about or attempting suicide is a clear sign that your teen is experiencing emotional distress and needs professional help. Talk with a mental health professional about treatment for your teenager. A therapist will evaluate him or her and make recommendations regarding the best course of treatment. Treatment will likely include therapy, and may also include antidepressant medication if symptoms warrant it. If your teen is a high risk for suicide, hospitalization may be necessary to ensure safety.
Stay alert for changes in your teen. Pay close attention to your teen’s emotions and behaviors, in order to notice any changes that require further treatment. If depression symptoms appear to get worse, notify your teen’s treatment provider. It’s also important to be aware of worsening symptoms in teenagers taking antidepressants. Contact your teen’s therapist or psychiatrist if you notice suicidal talk or behaviors, new or worsening depression or anxiety, panic attacks, or aggression. (You should receive a full list of symptoms to watch out for if your teen receives an antidepressant prescription.)
Involve your teen in treatment decisions. As a parent, you are ultimately responsible for making decisions about medical care for your child. However, your teen may want some level of input regarding his or her treatment. For example, if he or she doesn’t feel comfortable working with a particular therapist, find another who may be a better fit.
Encourage connections with other GLBT teens. Feelings of isolation can make depression worse and increase the risk of suicide. Find a teen GLBT group where your teenager can get support from others experiencing the same struggles. If you can’t find a group nearby, start a support group or seek one online.
Get support for yourself. It’s hard to care for a teenager with depression, but it can also be difficult for some parents to accept a teen’s sexual orientation. If you’re struggling with the situation, reach out for help. Find a support group for parents of GLBT teens. You’ll get access to education and resources as well as to a community of parents experiencing the same worries and challenges.
A suicide attempt need be successful only once. This means, as a parent, that you need to take an active role in helping your depressed GLBT teenager get better. Proper treatment can make all the difference in the world, and help your teen build the emotional strength to have a happier and more stable adult life.
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