At AFSP we know first-hand the unique experiences survivors of suicide loss face in the aftermath of losing their loved one. When a suicide loss occurs in the LGBTQ community, loss survivors may face additional challenges and barriers to finding help and healing. As AFSP’s Loss & Healing Programs Senior Coordinator and a member of the queer community, I wanted to make addressing the needs of LGBTQ suicide loss survivors a priority when I joined the organization’s LGBTQ workgroup last year. The practical realities of suicide loss that are challenging for any loss survivor may be compounded by discrimination and exclusion experienced by LGBTQ folks. When I first came out to my colleagues, I finally realized I deserve and feel able to show up in any space authentically as myself. Survivors of suicide loss deserve the same in their spaces of healing.
When we experience a suicide loss in the LGBTQ community, how it is handled by those who are the first to respond can set the tone for the public’s response. You might hear someone say, “They died by suicide because they were transgender.” All too often, explanations about what contributed to suicide death may be simplified to a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. However, we know that suicide is far more complex. Being LGBTQ does not lead to suicide. We do know that the stressors that come with the judgment, violence, and prejudice the LGBTQ community experiences can worsen mental health concerns and risk for suicide in some individuals.
LGBTQ persons may also experience additional and unique stressors around suicide loss. Misunderstandings around gender identity may lead to the increased possibility that a person is misgendered in death records, obituaries or at funerals. For example, a medical examiner may incorrectly identify a non-binary person by their sex as assigned at birth, without knowing their gender. This not only creates barriers for loss survivors in their grief experience, but also limits the scope of what we know about suicide loss experienced in transgender and non-binary populations. How relatives, the community, religious and cultural leaders respond to the suicide loss of an LGBTQ person also has implications for LGBTQ loss survivors in their grief. Unfortunately, some of us may not be included in rituals of mourning if our loved one’s next of kin did not accept or was not aware of their sexual orientation or gender. For others, faith traditions connected to the loss may stir up strong emotion and may view both the LGBTQ community and suicide through a stigmatizing lens.
Lack of LGBTQ representation often leads to negative experiences in traditional suicide loss support settings. For example, a support group facilitator assuming everyone in their spousal loss group had a partner of the opposite gender could isolate gay, lesbian, or bisexual loss survivors. In another instance, a grief counselor may continuously use the wrong pronouns, saying it’s just too hard to remember. Whether intentional or not, these types of interactions can further isolate LGBTQ loss survivors in their healing and create additional stressors that can have an impact on mental health.
As a public health organization, we at AFSP believe it is the role and responsibility of the suicide prevention community and LGBTQ allies and advocates to work toward accessible, culturally competent suicide loss support for the LGBTQ community. Suicide loss support networks should include LGBTQ professionals, peers with lived experience, and allies trained to understand the unique intersections of suicide loss and sexual orientation and gender identity. With the help of volunteers and partners, we hope to grow suicide loss support for the LGBTQ community and their loved ones through advocating, supporting and encouraging actions that:
- Examine where current strategies to support all loss survivors can be improved to consider and better support the unique needs of LGBTQ loss survivors
- Provide support resources (e.g. therapists, support groups) that are staffed by members of the LGBTQ community or who have training and/or experience working with LGBTQ persons who are grieving
- Include LGBTQ persons in the planning and building of suicide loss support in communities
- Respect intersectionality and acknowledge that LGBTQ individuals may have faced discrimination across multiple domains (race, age, sexual orientation, etc.).
- Respect preferred names and normalize the use of pronouns in all work-related suicide prevention and suicide loss support
- Provide education programs for those who respond to suicide, to increase the likelihood that LGBTQ loss survivors will receive a compassionate response that doesn’t pathologize, ignore or marginalize their sexual orientation and/or gender identity
- Develop methods to accurately identify sexual orientation and gender identity at the time of death to build knowledge about disparities in suicide loss, through efforts such as the training program for death investigators created by AFSP and partners.
- Provide guidance to LGBTQ organizations on responding to suicide loss, to ensure that they are equipped with resources and information to increase support, and reduce isolation for LGBTQ loss survivors
- Ensure safe messaging guidelines are followed, especially whenever there is media coverage of a death by suicide and the deceased is a member of the LGBTQ community. This includes taking additional steps to ensure accuracy of identification of the deceased (using correct names, pronouns etc.)
Because we know that both grief and discrimination can impact mental health, we must make suicide loss support in underrepresented communities a priority. I am hopeful that together, we can build LGBTQ inclusive healing spaces and resources in which all survivors of suicide loss feel safe, comfortable, and understood.