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Marriage Equality Laws Associated With Drop in LGBTQ Teen Suicide Rate

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist and writer specializing in sexual and reproductive health and the intersection of bioethics and popular culture. She is an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham ...

Legalizing same-sex marriage isn't just ensuring basic human rights – it may also be saving lives

What effect do expanding and more inclusive marriage equality laws have on the mental health of LGBTQ youth? Evidently, a lot.

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that across 47 states, same-sex marriage policies were associated with a 7 percent reduction in high school students who reported a suicide attempt in the past year — particularly among adolescents who were sexual minorities.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24 (the first is unintentional injury). According to the CDC, the attempted suicide rate is four times higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents, so the potential impact of marriage equality laws on this population is especially significant.

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"Study after study indicates that LGBT adolescents experience higher rates of mental health problems, as compared to their cisgender heterosexual peers, explained in part by elevated levels of victimization and discrimination," Dr. Adam Fried, a clinical psychologist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona, told SheKnows. "The rates of LGBT youth who have considered or attempted suicide are especially troubling, particularly among gender minority youth. While we cannot infer causation from a study like this, these results suggest a hopeful trend in the reduction of suicide attempts among LGBT adolescents."

Legalizing same-sex marriage isn't just ensuring basic human rights – it may also be saving lives
Image: Manuel-F-O/Getty Images

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health estimate that more than 134,000 fewer adolescent suicide attempts were made per year after comparing states that passed laws permitting same-sex marriage through January 2015 with states that did not adopt state-level legalization. Another recent factor was the June 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage equality on a federal level.

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One of the primary arguments in favor of marriage equality laws has been that by giving one group access to basic human rights, it doesn’t negatively impact the rights of others (namely, those opposed to same-sex marriage). While that is certainly still true, findings from this study take it one step further: guaranteeing basic human rights to one group can have an additional positive effect, improving the mental health of others.

"While it’s impossible to determine whether marriage equality laws by themselves directly impact the lives of LGBT teens, they may serve as powerful indicators to adolescents of perhaps a less rejecting and more accepting and supportive society," Fried explained. "As others have pointed out, one cannot underestimate the significant impact of stigma and rejection, particularly by family, classmates and community, on mental health."

He noted that research with LGBTQ youth on perceived social support and acceptance reinforce these conclusions.

"LGBT perceptions of positive social support and acceptance, particularly by family members, have been associated with lower levels of psychological distress and mental health problems," Fried said.

Legalizing same-sex marriage isn't just ensuring basic human rights – it may also be saving lives
Image: IvonneW/Getty Images

More: 5 Excellent LGBT Children's Books Any Family Can Enjoy

And while the reduction in suicide attempts among adolescents is good news, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve access to mental health care for LGBTQ youth. Not only that, but policies that take away existing rights or add to the stigma could have the opposite effect — another reason why it’s important for us not to regress when it comes to the human rights of any group.

“We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views,” study leader Dr. Julia Raifman, a post-doctoral fellow in the department of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School said in a press release. “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.”

If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the Trevor Lifeline now at 866-488-7386.

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