Can collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity prevent youth suicide?

02 February 2018
Written by Alana Schroeder

It’s a devastating statistic: Between 2011 and 2015, youth suicides rose 140% in Utah. The problem is so widespread that officials in Utah are calling the suicide rate an “epidemic.” But numbers don’t answer the hardest question. Why do Utah’s children and teens feel they need to end their lives?

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came to Utah to investigate this problem more closely. Working with the CDC, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) shared their findings in a special report, and you can read it here.

Only 40% of cases had any information about the youth’s sexual orientation. But of the cases that did, 15% of those children identified as sexual minorities. 

This data squares up with national numbers. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a staggering 29% of LGB children and teens will attempt suicide, compared to 6.4% of non-LGB kids

Even from the limited data we have, we can see LGTBQ kids face a unique risk.

Trans Youth & Suicide

As high as suicide rates are among LGB kids, suicide rates among trans youth may be even higher. Few organizations collect this type of data, so it’s difficult to get a complete picture. But the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center estimates that 3 in 10 trans youth have attempted suicide.

So how can we make it stop?

Can Collecting Data Really Help Prevent Youth Suicide? 

It might sound like an unconvincing idea at first: Can data alone really help us identify which kids are more likely to commit suicide? If it can, how? And what would we need to do with that data to make a difference before it’s too late?

In the public health world, these types of activities are called interventions. If a certain school—for example—has a high percentage of underserved LGBTQ students, then school districts and other state agencies can decide to bring resources to that school to support their “at-risk” populations. 

(Public health professionals define “at-risk populations” as any youth group that’s more likely to practice negative behaviors, like drug use, unsafe sex, or suicide).

 These resources may include things like:

suicide prevention programshiring culturally sensitive staffusing curriculum that includes evidence-based mental health care

In other words, school administrators can use this data to decide what resources would best help their LGBTQ students. 

It’s a classic case of using data for good. 

Many states have long recognized the advantages of better understanding who their students are. 25 states including California, Nevada, Colorado, and New York already collect data on students’ sexual orientation. They do this by administering a national survey from the CDC called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). The YRBS has two questions that ask 9th through 12th about their sexual orientation.

States can do a lot with this data. After looking at YRBS data, for example, schools in North Carolina started holding LGBTQ inclusion trainings for adults when the YRBS revealed how many LGBTQ students attend North Carolina’s schools. 

But states and school districts can also decline to administer the YRBS. And that’s exactly what’s happened in Utah. 

 Up until 2015, Utah didn’t include the questions about sexual orientation on the survey. In 2016, that changed when UDOH tried to get one of the two questions about sexual orientation added. But Cache and Davis School Districts said they wouldn’t give the YRBS to their students if it kept this question. 

These school districts claim questions about sexual orientation are “too sensitive” for students.

Fortunately, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) is recognizing how powerful data is. UDOH says it plans to start collecting data on students’ sexual orientation through the state’s own survey, SHARP (Student Health and Risk Prevention).

Collecting this data is a step in the right direction because it will provide Utah’s agencies with the information they need to better support our LGBTQ youth.

What About Trans Youth? 

But there’s a glaring gap in UDOH’s plan. If we only collect data on the kids who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, then we’re missing information on some of Utah’s most vulnerable youth—youth who identify as transgender.

 We’ve known for a long time that LGBTQ youth—just like all youth—do best when they’re in affirming, supportive environments. The CDC recommends that parents unconditionally support their children’s sexual orientation and gender identity by:

asking respectful questionslistening non-judgmentally and staying involved in their child’s social life

(Sadly, research shows that when parents don’t accept their LGBTQ children for who they are, it can cause kids to become depressed, abuse drugs and alcohol, and self-harm). 

Environments inside schools matter too. A study from 2014 found that creating “affirming spaces” in schools helps reduce suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ youth. Making sure that school staff receive LGBTQ-inclusive training also helps LGBTQ youth consider suicide less often. 

These findings couldn’t be more true for trans youth. Collecting data is one of the most valuable tools we have to create more positive school environments. 

So What’s Next? 

We know that positive environments where LGBTQ youth feel supported for who they are play a role in making children’s lives safer.

Just this year, JAMA Pediatrics published a study that shows how accepting environments affect youth. Researchers found that suicide attempts by LGB high school students went down 14 percent in states that legalized same-sex marriage before it became legal across the US in 2015. These findings make sense because advocates note that discrimination is a risk factor for suicide.

At Equality Utah, we work to ensure LGBTQ youth feel supported and loved through education, advocacy, community empowerment, and political action. We do this because we know acceptance and love saves lives. Collecting data on trans youth in Utah's schools is critical, and something we will keep fighting for in the next year. 

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