According to a new study, suicide attempts by youth have decreased where marriage equality is enacted. Such data should be a wake-up call for Catholic bishops rethink their strong opposition to equal civil marriage rights and LGBT rights more generally.
JAMA Pediatrics, a leading medical journal, published the study, “Difference-in-Difference Analysis of the Association Between Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts,” in its February 20, 2017 edition. PBS Newshour reported:
“The researchers found that suicide attempts by high school students decreased by 7 percent in states after they passed laws to legalize same-sex marriage, before the Supreme Court legalized it nationwide in 2015. Among LGB high school students, the decrease was especially concentrated, with suicide attempts falling by 14 percent.
“But in states that did not legalize same-sex marriage, there was no change.”
PBS noted that overall deaths by suicide for all populations have risen during the period surveyed by this study, 1999 to 2015. Led by Julia Raifman of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, researchers compared suicide rates between states that had and had not passed marriage equality. She told PBS:
“Raifman told the [PBS] NewsHour she was interested in studying same-sex marriage laws ‘as a marker of equal rights in general,’ adding that other laws that pertain to LGBT rights — such as employment and housing protections — still vary widely around the country.
“The study noted that the laws themselves reflected larger social trends toward support for the LGBT community, a possible factor in the fall in suicide attempts. But Raifman said that the decrease was especially concentrated around the time that same-sex marriage laws passed.”
What is left unexplained is why the decrease in suicide attempts is correlated to marriage equality. Raifman suggested it could be mental health improvements that come with being considered equal in society or seeing more representations in public life of married same-gender couples. PBS reported further:
“The feelings of being accepted and connected to society have “a protective effect in relation to suicide risk, suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviors,” said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a chief medical officer of the JED Foundation who works to reduce youth suicide. Schwartz wasn’t involved in the study. . .
“‘[Stigma is] a real risk factor, a feeling that you’re at odds with your family or community. . .It’s very painful, and can be very frightening. You feel like you’re going to be left out on your own.'”
Dr. Brian Mustanski of Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, said the wider literature shows “positive health effects of social policies that affirm and protect the equality of the LGBT community, and those positive benefits extend beyond LGBT individuals to the general population.”
Will these findings affect the way U.S. church leaders relate to LGBT equality? They should. Religious leaders, including Catholic bishops, have led the opposition against marriage equality and LGBT rights generally. But their opposition, as many pointed out, has the potential of causing harm to LGBT people, especially youth. Given the fact that 15 youths in the United States die by suicide each day and that LGB youth have an attempted suicide rate four times the average, this approach is no longer tolerable, if it ever was.
The U.S. bishops promote pro-life activities, but most often limit these to abortion. Many Catholics question bishops’ real commitment to social justice. But if the bishops are indeed pro-life, then why have they shown so little regard for the lives of LGBT people? If this latest research, which shows how much good legal equality can have on the lives of LGBT youth, does not move their hearts to end campaigns against LGBT rights, then their pro-life admonitions will ring empty.
Earlier this week, Bondings 2.0 reported about the Vatican’s effort to gather input directly from youth and young adults for the 2018 Synod of Bishops. Pope Francis and the Curia seem to have the right approach to engage youth, who are much more strongly aware of the need for LGBT acceptance, inclusion and justice. The U.S. bishops need to change their approach to LGBT rights not just for the good of sexual and gender diverse people, but because doing so will save lives and help youth flourish.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, February 23, 2017