What We Know Now: Updating Best Practices for Talking About Suicide & LGBT Populations

September 14, 2017 |

September 14, 2017 – Seth Walsh, a California sixth-grader. Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old in Indiana. Asher Brown, a middle-schooler from Texas. Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman. In September 2010, these four gay young people became household names as news and online media churned out detail after grim detail about their suicide deaths, all occurring in the first few weeks of a new school year. Each of the four suicides was attributed to repeated anti-gay taunting, harassment and bullying by classmates.

The media coverage that took root in the aftermath of these deaths gave LGBT suicide unprecedented visibility and sparked long-overdue public conversation about suicide risk in LGBT communities. But a lot of what was being said about the suicides of young people known or believed to be gay was deeply concerning. The singular focus on bullying oversimplified the complex factors that can lead people to take their lives, and suicide was widely portrayed as an almost inevitable response to the rejection and abuse suffered by so many LGBT youth. Fears began to mount that the rampant publicity would lead other vulnerable LGBT young people to identify with the experiences of the suicide victims and copy their behavior.

In early 2011, a coalition of LGBT and allied organizations brought together by AFSP, the Johnson Family Foundation (JFF) and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) responded by developing “Talking About Suicide & LGBT Populations,” a first-of-its-kind messaging guide for organizations and individuals. Since then, 40,000 copies of this resource have been printed and distributed.

Now, after nearly a year of careful review and discussion, the second edition of the guide has just been published. All of us who have played a role in its development are encouraged by the evolution of the conversation in the six years since the original guidance was offered – an evolution that reflects how much we have learned during this time.

Much of the original guide focused on what not to say or do to ensure that public conversations about LGBT suicide would not contribute to misinformation about suicide, or to the risk of contagion among others who are vulnerable. The new edition retains some of that guidance, because as progress has been made to reduce anti-LGBT bullying, new threats to the well-being of LGBT people (such as anti-transgender bathroom bans) have emerged, and with them, concerns about suicide risk.

But six years after the original guide, the conversation about LGBT people and suicide prevention has broadened — and the guide with it. In the new edition, we draw on recent research on LGBT suicide to more clearly recommend a multidimensional perspective on what contributes to suicide risk in LGBT people. Emphasizing the contributions of individual, interpersonal, community and societal risk factors, this perspective underscores that prejudice, discrimination and abuse both contribute to and interact with depression, anxiety, isolation and despair to create suicide risk in LGBT youth and adults. We also better understand how pervasive social stigma and discrimination contribute to the higher prevalence of suicidal ideation and behavior among some LGBT subgroups—in particular, transgender and bisexual people.

The new edition of “Talking About Suicide & LGBT Populations” further emphasizes the importance of expanding the conversation to include factors that protect LGBT individuals against suicide—in particular, the role of resilience, family acceptance and peer support. We increasingly understand how solid support networks and healthy self-care practices can buffer the triggering effects of anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination, and highlighting examples in our public discourse can provide needed hope and encouragement to those who are struggling. More attention also needs to be paid to our collective responsibility for supporting the well-being of LGBT people by reducing the stigma regarding mental health conditions, and promoting a culture that recognizes and accepts LGBT people for all of who they are.

LGBT-specific suicide prevention strategies and interventions remain too rare and underdeveloped, and much more conversation is needed to bring these gaps to public attention. The voices of LGBT people and organizations are critical to expanding the development and direction of suicide prevention strategies, programs and practices that serve the unique needs of LGBT populations.

In addition, LGBT and allied organizations can play an important role in helping to address the continuing lack of valid and reliable data on how many LGBT people die by suicide (or any other cause) each year. Not knowing inevitably leads to not doing, and it is not acceptable for LGBT suicide to continue to be overlooked or misunderstood.

Six years ago, our efforts often focused on what NOT to say. While that’s still important, we know today that there is so much more that we must be talking about. Our hope is that the 2017 edition of “Talking About Suicide & LGBT Populations” will be a catalyst for the sort of safe and productive public conversations that, six years from now, will have continued to fundamentally change the trajectory of suicidal behavior in our communities.

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