Teenagers with same-sex attractions, or those in gay and lesbian relationships, are twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide, a study published in August's American Journal of Public Health shows.
"A lot of people knew I was lesbian, but they were silent about it," said Tracy Peerson, who tried to commit suicide when she was 17. She is now 21 and in a relationship with another woman.
"I think with a lot of gay teens, you almost feel rejected from your family, school, your religion organization. Some of the time, there might be support there, but there's no dialogue," Peerson said.
The gay teen suicide incidence rate in the newly published study is lower than previous research (an oft-cited figure has been that 30 percent of teens who attempt suicide are gay or lesbian), but it is the first study to look at national data.
The report is based upon research gathered from the ongoing National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The questions about sexual orientation and suicide, asked in 1995, found that of the 458 youth who reported suicide attempts, 15 percent had a same-sex attraction - twice the rate for the same proportion of heterosexual teens. The study includes 12,000 adolescent girls and boys.
The study recommends improved prevention and intervention efforts that also take into consideration substance abuse, depression and family history of suicide - all of which researchers found are higher among gay teens.
"It is our hope that this study can put to rest any doubt that while the majority of youth reporting same-sex sexual orientation make it through adolescence with no more problems than heterosexual youth, a significant number are at risk for suicide," said co-author Stephen Russell.
Kim Westheimer, former director of the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, said schools should look at ways to make students feel safe since research has shown that youths who are harassed less are also less likely to attempt suicide.
"More needs to happen in schools, in communities to create safer and more welcoming environments for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth," said Westheimer, who co-wrote a book, "When the Drama Club Is Not Enough," about the Massachusetts program. "They need to know they're not alone. The more we can raise awareness about gay teen suicide, the more we can develop positive interventions."
Russell, a professor of human development at the University of California at Davis, said that while the research delves into a somber area, he is optimistic the results offer a glimmer of hope.
While gay teens are twice as likely to contemplate or attempt suicide as their straight counterparts, the study found that 85 percent of the same-sex oriented youth never contemplated taking their own lives, Russell said.
"The next step is to look at the kids who are fine and ask what is it that promotes healthy development for gay and lesbian youth," he said.