By Liz Massey, May 2016 Issue.
A few weeks ago, I read the following quote on Twitter, attributed to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company: “It helps to see the future as a road and not a wall.”
The quote resonated deeply with me immediately, and that feeling was only amplified when I found out a few days later that a female trans activist from my hometown – someone who had played a significant role in our local lesbian-feminist circles 20 years ago – had apparently taken her own life.
Many LGBTQ community members are aware of the urgency of mental health issues among queer youth, but statistics from a variety of research studies document why suicide is a lifelong health concern for our tribe:
• Queer youth are four times more likely than heterosexual youth to attempt suicide.
• Overall, LGBTQ adults are three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to experience depression or anxiety, important risk factors in predicting suicidal behavior.
• Depending on the survey consulted, between one-third and two-thirds of trans people report having experienced suicidal ideation (thoughts).
• Suicidal behavior actually peaks in middle age.
Why is our community at such high risk? It’s a question with no simple explanation, but researchers hypothesize that each person navigates adversity with a unique blend of protective and risk-intensifying factors. This influences whether they respond to the obstacles, challenges and threats that enter their lives with hope or hopelessness.
It’s clear that experiencing stigma and discrimination is emotionally damaging – one study reports that self-harming behavior increases by 2.5 times with each incident of LGBTQ-related victimization. It’s also clear that access to social support has a hugely protective effect on an LGBTQ person dealing with trying circumstances. When it is absent, people suffer. In fact, one study found that LGB youth from highly rejecting families were 8.4 times MORE likely to have attempted suicide, compared to LGB peers who experienced little or no family rejection.
Another challenge that complicates this situation is the fact that we, as a community, still have a hard time discussing mental illness – perhaps a remnant from the days when gayness itself was considered a mental illness. This intra-group stigma can make it even harder for a troubled individual to ask for professional help, which can make a critical difference in helping a suicidal person rework a toxic internal narrative and regain the will to live.
It can feel overwhelming when one studies the data and hears individual stories about suicide among gay and trans people. However, there are a lot of actions we can take to preserve our precious LGBTQ community members. Individually, we can …
• Understand the warning signs of suicide. The website Suicide.org has a useful list of behaviors to be alert for.
• Call 911 in case of an emergency. Don’t try to handle life-threatening situations alone.
• Share hotline numbers with those who need them. The Trevor Project (866-488-7386) can aid queer youth ages 18-24 and the Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860) is staffed by fellow trans people trained in crisis intervention. In Arizona, LGBTQ adults can call the EMPACT-SPC crisis line at 866-205-5229.
• Listen, care, and follow up. Suicidal thoughts can come and go, and it’s important a person struggling with these feelings knows he or she has ongoing support.
Collectively, there’s much we can do to lower our community’s risk related to suicide.
• Talk about the connection between oppression and suicide risk. Discrimination has documented negative health impacts, including those related to suicide, and this should be mentioned frequently as we pursue our advocacy work.
• Spread awareness of resources that support or encourage resilient behavior. Those could include peer support groups, recovery resources and groups providing social acceptance.
• Advocate for better data collection. There is almost no national data on suicidal ideation or suicide rates among the LGBTQ population as a whole, across their lifespan. Better data on these topics can help tailor treatments and paint a more accurate picture of the situation, which can assist professionals in creating better interventions.
Everyone has points in their life when the future looks like an impossible, impenetrable wall. For me, the worst point was when I turned 17 and felt like I would never fit in, or feel comfortable in my own skin. Thanks to a lot of support and a little bit of therapy, I made it through that time. It did get better.
Our community has a long way to go before every LGBTQ person – at every age, in every ethnic and cultural subgroup and in every location – can be sure they will have the affirmation, support and equal rights they need to thrive. Until we reach that point, let’s commit to “helping each other over the wall” and making it onto the road to the future we’re intended to travel together.
As LGBTQ health advocates Kellan Baker and Josh Garcia asserted in a ThinkProgress article on suicide prevention, “Each one of us – whether LGBT or ally, pastor or policymaker, researcher or activist – must respond to the moral imperative to help build a world where LGBT people count and are counted, and where they can live their lives free from discrimination, harassment, and the violence of suicide.”