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Why Do Teen Suicide Rates Drop When Same-Sex Marriage Is Legalized?

New research suggests marriage-equality laws reduce the stigma felt by gay teens.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: krytofr/Flickr)

Teenage suicides are unspeakable tragedies, and they’re far from uncommon. According to government statistics, suicide is the second most common cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds.

While psychologists and other counselors have done invaluable work to reduce this risk, new research finds a different group of professionals has had an enormous positive impact: state legislators.

It reports the suicide rate among high school students decreases significantly after a state law legalizing same-sex marriage goes into effect.

“These are high school students, so they aren’t getting married any time soon, for the most part,” lead author Julia Raifman of Johns Hopkins University said in announcing the findings. “Still, permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. 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.”

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, used data on 32 of the 35 states that legalized same-sex marriage between January 1st, 2004, and January 1st, 2015. Sexual orientation and suicide attempts were self-reported by more than 760,000 high school students who participated in a nationally representative biannual survey.

“There are large disparities in suicide attempts based on sexual orientation,” the researchers note. Specifically, the 2015 survey found “more than 29 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students reported attempting suicide within the past 12 months,” compared to 6 percent of their heterosexual peers.

To avoid cultural differences between states in different parts of the country, the researchers “focused on the differences in suicide attempts within each state before and after the implementation of same-sex marriage policies.”

They found that, once a law legalizing same-sex marriage went into effect, the overall teenage suicide rate went down by 7 percent. Suicide attempts among gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens fell a full 14 percent. In contrast, there was no significant change in these rates in states that did not pass such laws.

“Furthermore, we found that the effects of legalization persisted two years after (the law went into effect),” the researchers add. “We estimated that, each year, same-sex marriage policies would be associated with more than 134,000 fewer adolescents attempting suicide.”

The data does not definitively answer the question of why implementation of these laws has had such a strong impact. But in an accompanying editorial, Mark Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University expresses agreement with Raifman that a reduction in stigma is a likely explanation.

He adds that, while gay marriage has been legal in all 50 states since a 2015 Supreme Court decision, “numerous laws and policies affecting sexual minorities remain openly contested,” and suggests their effect on teen suicide rates should be similarly studied.

“It’s not easy to be an adolescent, and for adolescents who are just realizing they are sexual minorities, it can be even harder,” Raifman notes. Her research shows societal signals can make this daunting and potentially dangerous stage of life either tougher or easier.