Do Teens Commit Suicide More In Politically Conservative Areas?

Jim Burroway

April 18th, 2011

That’s the conclusion drawn by Columbia University psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler in a study to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Pediatrics. I haven’t seen the study myself, but based on news reports and the meager information provided in the study’s abstract, I think caution is in order.

Using data drawn from an Oregon survey, Hatzenbuehler created an social environment index based on (1) the proportion of same-sex couples, (2) the proportion of registered Democrats, (3) the presence of gay-straight alliances in schools, and (4) school policies (nondiscrimination and anti-bullying) that specifically protected lesbian, gay, and bisexual students. Based on that cross-tabulation, he concluded that not only were LGBT students about five times more likely to attempt suicide in the previous twelve months, but that LGBT students were “20% greater in unsupportive environments compared to supportive environments.”

That conclusion passes the gut check, but one can be misled by one’s gut. My first question is this: to what extent does the study control for rural vs. urban environments? That seems like a logical questions, and it immediately leapt to mind in discovering that the data was based on an Oregon survey. Oregon’s urban areas are almost exclusively Democratic while its more rural areas are more uniformly conservative. If this study had taken place in, say, Arizona, where there is a significant mix of urban areas that are wildly conservative (Phoenix, Mesa, Gilbert), and other urban areas which trend Democratic (Tucson, Flagstaff), the result may show something very different. California’s mix of liberal and conservative urban and rural areas would also provide fertile ground to study this further.

Until we know more about this study, I believe caution would be well advised. I hope to obtain a copy of the study soon.


April 18th, 2011

Thank you for your cautious approach. It doesn’t do LGBT rights any good if we jump on surveys that sound like we like the conclusions without understanding what the study really shows any more than it helps the anti-gay establishment to jump on studies without knowing what they really say.

Reed Boyer

April 18th, 2011

Good point: the “rural vs. urban” factor. I live in a “rural city,” whose Democratic representative is a Blue Dog (DINO), and other representation and voting here trends more and more conservative, despite having a majority of Democrats registered as voters.
We have a university with a nice, safe LGBT enclave, yet one of its members hanged himself this past month.
Perhaps it’s the mind-set that’s more important.
As well, Oregon had several anti-gay measure votes in the last decade, and I’m curious as to how much “negative message media saturation” may have added to the mix.

Priya Lynn

April 18th, 2011

I’m not following your concern, Jim. The study was comparing politically conservative environments with politcally liberal environments, what does urban versus rural have to do with it?

Priya Lynn

April 18th, 2011

Thought some more about it, I get it now.


April 18th, 2011

“Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were significantly more likely to attempt suicide in the previous 12 months, compared with heterosexuals (21.5% vs 4.2%).” (From the “meager abstract.”)

I would like to know more about these numbers — as far as “gut checks” go, I have a hard time believing that more than one in five 11th graders who don’t identify as straight tried to kill themselves in the last year alone, and this whole endeavor just seems like another well-meaning attempt by public-health types to paint gay people as perpetual victims put on earth to suffer.


April 19th, 2011

Via WaPo, from last week’s taxpayer/House effort to help NOM ‘catapult the propaganda’, as our fearful leader once put it:

“I think no children are expendable,” Gallagher replied. “Gay people have families that are not marital families, but they are families. I myself was an unwed mother*, so I have firsthand experience with being in a family that’s not a marital family. I don’t think you need to have a message of stigmatization and exclusion to protect to an ideal.”

These studies are important, because they show that Mags’ second ideal about exclusion is just wrong, perhaps in general but certainly in particular about gays.

The persistence of gay persecution is probably more pervasive over the ages and even at times when gays were openly acknowledged than her quasi-anthropological claims about marriage.

*I ignore that her claim is false: she might have been unwed, but she was not in a ‘nonmarital family’ because the law allowed her to get married, to create family.

Sean Santos

April 19th, 2011

A bit of a quibble: the question being asked is not whether a conservative environment poses a problem, but whether “non-supportive” environments pose a problem. So if the environment is “non-supportive” because it is rural and not because it is conservative, that’s irrelevant to the study’s conclusions (at least as stated in the abstract).

The only question is one of causation: are the factors measured by the study (such as less liberalism, less gay presence, or bad school policies) the cause of higher suicide rates? Or are both caused by other factors (low population density makes it hard for gays to organize, social isolation from progressive attitudes developing elsewhere, different religious demographics)? While a rural vs. urban study would probably be necessary to establish what the main chains of causation are (and to determine whether, say, changing school policy can fix much of the problem), that’s not necessary to show that something about the gay-friendliness of an area influences suicide rates. And there definitely are gay-specific effects coming into play here, as shown by the difference between the variation in gay suicide rates and straight suicide rates (both in absolute and relative terms).

What I find to be a bigger problem is that their index for a supportive environment includes percentage of registered Democrats; they actually have a hybrid measure of liberalism generally (-ish, since not all liberals are Democrats) and gay-friendliness specifically, and I don’t know how that is an improvement over measuring gay-friendliness alone. It’s not so much that it undermines their very broad thesis (that social environment plays an important role across a range of individual teens’ personal situations). It’s more that it muddies the waters a bit as to which factors are important. I hope that in the paper they actually break out which factors account for most of the correlation with suicide rate, rather than merely using their composite index.


April 20th, 2011

I have an ignorant European question: what age are 11thgraders and 8thgraders? (They were asked to fill in surveys for the Oregon Healthy Teens Study that buildt the datapool for Mark Hatzenbuehler’s research.)

Sean Santos

April 20th, 2011


In the American school system, the age at the beginning of a school year is usually 5+grade level (plus or minus a year). So they would be 13-14, and 16-17.

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