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University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Pitt Researchers Find Higher Rates of Suicidality and Depression Among Gay Teens

PITTSBURGH, April 5, 2011 - A University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study finds that gay and lesbian teens reported higher rates of suicidality and depression than did heterosexual youth. The findings are reported online in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the official publication of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (SAHM). The Pitt study provides the first systematic review and analysis of suicidality and depression symptoms in this teen population.

“We conducted a meta-analysis, which means we combined the results of 18 studies involving more than 100 different comparisons and over 100,000 teenage participants, and we were surprised by the overwhelming consistency of the results,” said Michael P. Marshal, Ph.D., lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Pitt’s School of Medicine. “No matter how we looked at it, gay teens reported higher levels of suicidality than straight teens. Overall, gay teens were almost three times more likely to report a history of suicidality.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults in the United States, with the rate of suicide attempts during the lifetime of this population ranging from 1 to 10 percent. Teen suicide results in approximately 4,500 lives lost each year. The overwhelming majority of teens who make suicide attempts demonstrate mood psychopathology, with depression being the most prevalent disorder.

This study found that, on average, 28 percent of gay teens reported a history of suicidality compared to 12 percent of heterosexual teens. The studies also showed that even after controlling for variables such as depression, low self-esteem, substance use and conflict with family, gay and lesbian youth were still more than twice as likely to report a history of suicidality as heterosexual youth.

“These results suggest that it is extremely important that health professionals create a clinical environment that makes it easy for gay and lesbian youth to discuss their sexual orientation with their doctors,” adds Dr. Marshal. “Doctors and clinics need to emphasize their privacy policies and assure teens that they will not discuss their sexual orientation with parents or caregivers. It also is critical that primary care physicians are trained to screen youth for suicidal thoughts and behaviors and be prepared to help them seek the appropriate treatment services.”

Dr. Marshal and his colleagues now are trying to  understand why being  a member of a sexual minority puts a teen at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior so that  the proper interventions can be provided. “The vast majority of gay and lesbian teens do not report suicidality and depression. We need to learn more about how gay and lesbian youth manage to stay healthy in the face of a persistent and pervasive homophobic culture.”

Co-authors of the study include Laura J. Dietz, Ph.D., David A. Brent, M.D., and Helen A. Smith, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine; Mark S. Friedman, Ph.D., and Ron Stall, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health; James McGinley, B.A., University of North Carolina; Brian C. Thoma, B.A., University of Utah; Pamela J. Murray, M.D., M.P.H., West Virginia University; and Anthony R. D’Augelli, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University. 

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