Health & Science LGBTQ+

LGBT Youth Suicide Rates Fell—But Only In States Where Gay Marriage Was Made Legal

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The legalization of same-sex marriage doesn’t just benefit gay couples and their families. LGBTQ youth also appear to get a crucial mental health boost when marriage laws become more inclusive. 

A study found that suicide attempts dropped among queer teens after same-sex marriage became legal. The research, published in JAMA Pediatrics, looked at youth suicide attempts from 1999 through 2015, and found that in the 32 states that enacted same-sex marriage laws during that time, suicide attempts dropped 14 percent among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning high school students after the laws were passed.

In the states that did not legalize gay marriage during that time period — in other words, before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced all states to comply in 2015 — rates of suicide attempts did not improve for queer and questioning teens. The survey that the researchers drew data from did not ask about transgender status and did not measure actual suicides.

While the observed change in the rate of suicide attempts doesn’t prove that the same-sex marriage laws were the cause, such well-publicized expansion of rights can make way for more social acceptance, and therefore decreased bullying, around sexual orientation.

Lead author Julia Raifman, Sc.D., says, “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 more inclusive laws perhaps also benefited youth overall, even straight teens. Suicide attempts dropped 7 percent among all high school students after the legalization of same-sex marriage in those 32 states, but did not change in the states that did not enact gay marriage laws.

Further research is needed to understand the connection. Same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states, but as more laws are passed to protect LGBTQ rights in other arenas, researchers will have more opportunities to study the mental health benefits.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.