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Gay, Bisexual Men at Higher Risk for Suicide

Study finds them likelier to both think about it and attempt it

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- At least one in five gay and bisexual men has planned suicide, and 12 percent have actually tried to kill themselves.

The rates, according to a new study whose authors say is the most extensive of its kind, are much higher than those among heterosexuals.

The study says that suicidal plans and attempts were especially common among younger gay men who lack a support system of peers, says psychologist Jay Paul, study co-author and an investigator at the University of California at San Francisco's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies.

"You're talking about something that's going to wear people down," Paul says.

He and colleagues reviewed the findings of a telephone survey of 2,881 gay and bisexual men in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco. Researchers surveyed the men from 1996 to 1998. The findings appear in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Three groups of gay and bisexual were most likely to have made plans to kill themselves: those with no college education (25 percent); the unemployed (28 percent); and those who made $20,000 or less a year (33 percent).

By contrast, according to the study researchers, an estimated 9 percent to 15 percent of heterosexual men make plans to commit suicide during their lives, and between 1.5 percent and 3 percent attempt it.

No one knows how many suicide attempts result in deaths. Paul says estimates range widely, from one in 10 to one in 50 to 60.

The study found no major differences in the rates of suicidal impulses among black, white and Latino gay men. HIV-positive men were only slightly more likely to have been suicidal than HIV-negative men.

Researchers found younger gay men -- those who turned 25 after 1990 -- were the most likely to report having made suicide attempts before the age of 25. Paul acknowledges the memory of the older men could have been incomplete.

Half of the men born after 1955 reported being harassed because of their sexual orientation before the age of 17, and that may play a role in their psychological makeup, Paul says.

Other studies have shown that many gay teenagers think of suicide. A University of California at Davis study released last year found that gay and bisexual teens of both sexes were twice as likely as other teens -- 15 percent versus 7 percent -- to report suicidal thoughts or attempts. The study looked at a survey of 12,000 teens.

"No matter how strong someone is personally and psychologically, their being is based upon the context in which they live -- the negative experiences they have of discrimination, harassment or alienation, and the positive experiences they have of social support," Paul says.

Isolation is a major challenge for gay teens, says Susan Cochran, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies gay and lesbian issues.

"When most folks find a way to come out, they have to do it on their own," she says. "They have to individually find their way into the gay community. That's a tough path for a lot of people."

Resolving the problem of suicide among gays isn't easy because of society's ambivalence toward helping them to accept their sexuality, she says.

"If we decide that teenagers are smoking too much, as a society we will all rush to come up with interventions to reduce smoking in teenagers," she says. "But when you think about doing an intervention to reduce the risk of suicide attempts among adolescents who are coming out, it gets a lot more complicated for people and for society."

What To Do

Learn more about teen suicide in this fact sheet prepared by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, meanwhile, focuses specifically on gay teens.

SOURCES: Jay Paul, Ph.D., investigator, Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, University of California, San Francisco; Susan Cochran, Ph.D., professor, epidemiology, University of California, Los Angeles; August 2002 American Journal of Public Health
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