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Gay Teens More Prone to Suicide

But a wide majority don't want to kill themselves

FRIDAY, Aug. 10, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In the most extensive study of its kind, researchers have confirmed that teens attracted to their own sex are more suicidal than other adolescents.

Fifteen percent of kids with gay or bisexual feelings have considered or attempted suicide, compared with 7 percent of other teens, the study finds.

Unlike previous research, the new study looked at a national sample of teens and measured the mental health of all types of teens, not just gays. Significantly, the study discounts previous research that non-heterosexual teens are extremely suicidal, at a rate much higher than 15 percent.

"Gay kids are at risk, but it is probably lower than past studies have argued," says study co-author Stephen Russell, a professor of human development at the University of California at Davis. "But anytime we have something this dramatic, we have to pay attention to what's going on in their lives."

Researchers looked at an ongoing study of 12,000 teens in grades 7 to 12 from all over the country. Russell says previous studies were limited to single states, "and the criticisms were that they have not been representative of the random kid on the streets of Hometown, USA."

The findings appear in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

To ensure privacy, the students answered questions on a computer as they were read to them over headphones. "The idea behind that is if there's an interviewer or a parent in the room with them, the person can't see the answer they're giving," Russell says.

Seven percent of boys and 5 percent of girls said they were attracted to the same sex.

While 15 percent of the teens with same-gender feelings reported suicidal thoughts or impulses, Russell emphasizes that the other 85 percent did not. "My ongoing work is to look at the kids who are doing well and understand why. Growing up as a gay or lesbian kid in this country places them at risk. What is it about a lot of these kids that helps them navigate their adolescence in healthy ways?" he asks.

For those who are suicidal, Russell recommends that sexuality be discussed when counselors intervene to treat depression and substance abuse. Both are precursors to suicidal thoughts and actions, he says.

"Most of those programs don't pay attention to other things going on in kids lives," he says.

Not surprisingly, interpretations of the study differ. Dr. John R. Diggs Jr., a Massachusetts sexuality expert, says the study authors didn't make many of the mistakes that previous researchers did, such as choosing subjects in a non-random manner. (Some studies recruited subjects at gay clubs and organizations.)

While Russell attributes depression in gay teens to "hostility" toward homosexuals, Diggs questions whether non-heterosexual teens might be naturally prone to mental illness. A Netherlands study published this year in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported that gays have more psychiatric disorders than heterosexuals.

Diggs also was skeptical of the study's focus on all teens with any sort of sexual attraction toward their own gender. "People get crushes, and they may sexualize it, but they don't (always) become homosexual," he says.

Counseling should encourage suicidal teens to avoid all sexual activity and drug use, Diggs says. "They should not be encouraged to explore or self-identify as homosexual, which puts them at increased health risk."

What To Do

Learn more about teen suicide in this fact sheet prepared by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has prepared a fact sheet about the challenges facing gay teens.

For an alternative opinion about homosexuality in teens and others, check these links offered by the American Family Association of Michigan.

SOURCES: Interviews with Stephen Russell, Ph.D., professor of human development, University of California, Davis, and John R. Diggs Jr., M.D., member, medical advisory council, National Abstinence Clearinghouse, and physician in private practice, South Hadley, Mass.; August 2001 American Journal of Public Health
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