A new study has found that when a state legalizes same-sex marriage, it leads to a drop in teen suicide rates.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, investigated how the legalization of same-sex marriage across 32 of 35 US states that have thus far signed it into law affected the suicide rate of over 760,000 students between 1999 and 2015. Then, researchers compared this to the 15 states that have not legalized same-sex marriage. With other variables taken into account, researchers found that the teen suicide rate dropped by 7 percent among all students and 14 percent amongst LGBTQ students.
“Although it is unclear what drives greater rates of suicide attempts among adolescents who are sexual minorities, prior evidence suggests several potential mechanisms, including stigma,” the study notes in its introduction.
“Stigma based on sexual orientation is associated with mental distress, anxiety and depression, and greater rates of suicide attempts. Policies preventing same-sex marriage constitute a form of structural stigma because they label sexual minorities as different and deny them legal, financial, health, and other benefits that are associated with marriage.”
While the decline in suicide rates among teenagers in the states that legalized same-sex marriage was clear, the reason for that decline needs further study. Researchers hypothesized that the drop in rates might have either been a direct result of the policy itself or the political campaign advocating for legalization, which may have helped struggling teens realize they’re not alone.
Julia Raifman, who led the study, explained that “permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. There may be something about having equal rights–even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them–that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.”
Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of ten and 24. In comparison to 6 percent of heterosexual teenagers, 29 percent of LGBTQ teens reported attempting suicide in the last year.
Healthy People 2020, a program run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services aims to reduce adolescent suicide rates by 10 percent by 2020. Raifman’s new research suggests that legalizing same-sex marriage has been effective in helping them achieve this goal.
“We can all agree that reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, regardless of our political views,” said Raifman. “Policymakers need to be aware that policies on sexual minority rights can have a real effect on the mental health of adolescents. The policies at the top can dictate in ways both positive and negative what happens further down.”