Too Often, Bullying Has Lethal Consequences for LGBT Teens
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) youth who die by suicide are five times more likely to have been bullied than their straight counterparts.
The finding stems from a review of nearly 10,000 U.S. death records for 2003 to 2017. All of the youth were between 10 and 19 years of age when they took their own lives.
While LGBTQ youth are more likely to be bullied and report suicidal thoughts than their straight peers, researchers said this study may be the first to show that bullying is a more common precursor to suicide among LGBTQ people.
"Clear and consistent evidence shows that LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience bullying -- including in-person bullying and cyberbullying -- than their heterosexual and cisgender peers," said lead author Kirsty Clark. She's a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Conn.
Prior research has shown that LGBTQ youth have at least double the risk for bullying as their straight peers. Bullying has been linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviors for all young people, Clark added.
"Our study was the first, to our knowledge, to explore whether the prevalence of bullying differed between LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ youth who died by suicide," she explained.
To explore that question, her team used a national database that pulls together records from coroners, medical examiners and law enforcement as well as death certificates. It also includes information from families and friends, as well as decedents' social media posts, texts, emails, and -- if left -- suicide notes.
The vast majority (9,550) of the suicides involved straight youth, the study found; 334 involved an LGBTQ teen or preteen.
While one in 20 straight suicides involved prior bullying, that figure shot up to one in five among LGBTQ people. Prior bullying was a factor in more than two-thirds of suicides involving LGBTQ preteens, the study found.
The study also found that:
- 60% of suicides among straight teens and 53% among LGBTQ youth occurred between ages 17 and 19.
- Among straight teens, one-third of suicides occurred between 14 and 16, compared to 38% among LGBTQ youth.
- Meanwhile, 8% of suicides involving straight youth occurred between 10 and 13 years of age, compared to 9% among LGBTQs.
Clark said the investigation didn't look at whether the risk of suicide-related bullying among LGBTQ youth changed over the study period.
But Theodore Caputi, a research consultant at the Harvard Medical School's Health Equity Research Lab in Cambridge, Mass., said LGBTQ bullying is a big, continuing problem.
"While the climate surrounding LGBT people has changed dramatically in many parts of the country in just the past decade, we cannot become complacent," said Caputi, who reviewed the findings. "Many LGBT people in the U.S. -- and particularly LGBT youths -- are still consistently subjected to physical and emotional abuse in their daily lives. This study confirms that this mistreatment can, in fact, be deadly."
Even so, both expressed surprise at the magnitude of the problem. And Caputi called the findings "a wake-up call" for greater action.
Clark said that several steps should follow. Among them: introducing stronger, school-based anti-bullying programs; training pediatricians to better screen LGBTQ patients for signs of bullying; encouraging parents to be more supportive; ensuring that anti-bullying policies explicitly address the role of sexual orientation and gender identity harassment; and increasing focus on the growing threat of cyber-bullying.
Caputi agreed. He said it's up to doctors, teachers, club leaders and parents to "explicitly normalize different gender identities and sexual orientations and reinforce that LGBT people deserve the same respect as everyone else."
But he also pointed out that bullying is just one of several problems that are widespread among LGBT youths.
"LGBT individuals report stigma, isolation, discrimination and internalized prejudice," Caputi noted. "All of which contribute to substantial health disparities between LGBT youths and their heterosexual peers."
Creating supportive environments for LGBT youths will help chip away at these problems, he said, and "in turn, decrease disparities between LGBT and heterosexual youths in suicide, suicidal thoughts, substance use and other health outcomes."
The findings were published online May 26 in JAMA Pediatrics.
There's more about bullying at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
SOURCES: Kirsty Clark, PhD, MPH, epidemiologist and postdoctoral associate, department of social and behavioral sciences, Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, Conn.; Theodore Caputi, MPH, research consultant, Health Equity Research Lab, Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Mass.; JAMA Pediatrics, May 26, 2020, online