Spotlight on Diversity Research
Relationships between childhood victimization and suicidality among sexual minority youth
By Amanda Hasselle
In 2015, 43 percent of lesbian, gay or bisexual students reported seriously considering suicide compared to 15 percent of heterosexual youth nationwide (CDC, 2016). About 29 percent of lesbian, gay, or bisexual youth attempted suicide in the past year, compared to about 6 percent of heterosexual youth (CDC, 2016). These statistics illustrate a clear need for research identifying the factors that place sexual minority youth at increased risk for suicide. Findings from two recent studies suggest that child maltreatment is one factor contributing to increased suicidality among sexual minority youth.
One group of researchers (Flynn, Johnson, Bolton, & Mojtabai, 2016) examined the impact of childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect on individuals' likelihood of having attempted suicide by asking adults to retrospectively report on their exposure to these childhood maltreatment variables, as well as their lifetime history of suicide attempts. They found that a greater percentage of sexual minority youth, compared to heterosexual youth, experienced sexual abuse during childhood. This increased exposure to sexual victimization was associated with higher prevalence of suicide attempts among sexual minority youth. Female sexual minority youth exposed to childhood physical abuse were also more likely to have attempted suicide, compared to heterosexual females.
A second group of researchers (Bouris, Everett, Heath, Elsaesser, & Neilands, 2016) focused on peer victimization experiences at school and online as correlates of suicidality. Their findings indicated that, compared to heterosexual youth, sexual minority youth were more likely to endorse being threatened or injured with a weapon at school and were more likely to experience harassment based on perceived sexual orientation or gender activity. Both experiences were associated with higher levels of suicidality among sexual minority youth.
If policymakers, clinicians, school administrators and parents understand the prevalence of both childhood victimization and suicidality among sexual minority youth, they will be better prepared to reduce childhood abuse, familial rejection, and peer victimization experiences. Helping sexual minority youth to feel safe and accepted at home and school may improve their sense of well-being and impact long-term trajectories. Importantly, factors included in these studies account for a portion of the association between sexual identity and suicidality—additional factors potentially impacting this relationship include: prejudice, discrimination, internalized homophobia, substance abuse, and mental disorders. Additional research and theory development are necessary to understand the suicidality disparity between sexual minority youth and heterosexual youth.
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Bouris, A., Everett, B. G., Heath, R. D., Elsaesser, C. E., & Neilands, T. B. (2016). Effects of victimization and violence on suicidal ideation and behaviors among sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents. LGBT Health, 3 (2), 153-161.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2016). Sexual identity, sex of sexual contacts, and health-related behaviors among students in grades 9-12—United States and selected sites. Surveillance Summaries, 65 (9).
Flynn, A. B., Johnson, R. M., Bolton, S. L., & Mojtabai, R. (2016). Victimization of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in childhood: Associations with attempted suicide. Suicide and life-threatening behavior.