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Same sex Marriage and Teen Suicide Prevention

Hello again Dear Reader,

Today I’d like to take the opportunity to follow up on yesterday’s Blog ‘Where is the Love’, which begged the question...when is a loving relationship wonderful and acceptable to society and when is it not? When discussing the recent ‘Yes’ vote for same-sex marriage in Australia, one reader noted that “they predict the incident (sic) of young lives lost to suicide will decrease” as a result. 

And you know what? I bloody hope that ‘their’ prediction is spot on. Anything, absolutely anything, that can be done to save the lives, and even improve the quality of life, for our youth is to be welcomed and encouraged. So, if allowing two consenting same-sex couples to marry does that, let’s hurry up with changing the law and get out the wedding bells.

But. And I can’t help asking this, it’s in my nature. Who are ‘they’? Who made this prediction and discovered the causal factor link between youth suicide and the non-legalisation of same-sex marriages? What data or evidence was the prediction made on? How reliable is it? And, I hate to ask this, but I have to....what if they’re wrong?

For me, I can move on from this as an analysis of societal issues, but for those involved, what if the ‘better quality of life for Australian youth’ promised by this prediction is a mirage? How will our youth cope when they search for the rainbow and only find raging storms? 

So, today I want to be able to answer these questions (I actually don’t even know the answers yet) and I hope like crazy that at the end I can say Yes, Yes and Yes. That legalising same-sex marriage is going to go some way towards saving the youth of Australia.

Ok, so who are ‘they’? Well, it appears that they are a group of American researchers who recently published a report analyising the relationship between State Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts over the period 1999 to 2015. It’s a very weighty and detailed report, but it concludes that ‘same sex marriage policies are associated with reduced adolescent suicide attempts’. Yay!! They were right! Weren’t they?

Well, therein lies the problem. Although the report found a 7% reduction in high school students reporting a suicide attempt within the last year (which is bloody great), they did note just a couple of caveats.

Now, before I get into those caveats, let me just note that five prominent Australian health groups subsequently leveraged off this report and by incorporating Australian data with the noted 7% reduction, were able to predict that legalising same-sex marriage in Australia would ‘prevent 3000 teen suicide attempts each year’. Wow, that is fantastic. Now I really hope it’s true.

The caveats. Oh dear, the caveats, or as the authors put it...the limitations. 

Here they are:

1.  The conclusion  was based on self-report, given that a minority of individuals who attempt suicide present to hospitals and that suicides are often underreported. 
2.  The analyses should be interpreted with caution given the limited data availability on sexual orientation and the potential for same-sex marriage to affect sexual minority identity. 
3.  No control for unmeasured individual-level characteristics, including socioeconomic status, or for unmeasured state characteristics that may change over time, such as religious affiliation or acceptance of sexual minorities; and
4.  Finally, the analysis does not understand the how implementation of same-sex marriage policies appeared to have reduced adolescent suicide attempts. They note that there is a need for further research to understand the association between sexual minority rights, stigma, and sexual minority health.

So, if I read this right, the authors are dubious about the numbers as not many people officially report suicide attempts. They’re also dubious about the numbers based on the limited data available. And they also acknowledge that they weren’t able to factor in any of their other potential causal factors underpinning youth suicide attempts. And...they have no idea how this apparent causal link works. But, they are ready to proclaim that they’re assessed 7% reduction is real. 

Really? And then, what’s worse is a number of leading Australian mental health agencies jump onboard with this number and use it to predict future suicidal behavior in Australia!

Really? Based on what empirical data? Umm, none. Nope, we’ve had legalised same-sex relationships throughout all of Australia for 20 years now, and we don’t even have any data on any relationship between societal acceptance of same-sex couples and teen suicide. We all know it exists but there is no recorded data. Nothing, go ahead, have a look. Go look for a trend. Ill go have a bourbon while I wait.

Ok, not good is it. You would have hoped that with the amount of progress we have seen over the last 20 or more years that we would have observed a noticeable trend between how we legalise same sex couples and a reduction in suicide rates. Remember, back when some of us were born, they could execute people in Victoria for committing the monstrous crime of anal sex. And then, well, only 20 years in jail. Aren’t we a lovely country?

And in Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until only 20 years ago  And even when it was legalised, gay and lesbian people couldn’t serve in many areas of employment and faced all different forms of ongoing discrimination in many different walks of life. 

So the question I have to ask is...was there a directly proportional reduction in teen suicide over this period as the law made endeavours to reduce the discrimination against same-sex couples. Directly proportional reduction ok.

No. No there wasn’t. Even with major gains in the law’s treatment of same-sex couples, the reduction in teen suicide over the period has been almost insignificant. Any gains in this area could be just as likely the result of one of the many other socioeconomic factors related to teen mental health.

What we need is some credible data from a country that has already gone down this road. Thankfully, that data exists.

The first country to legalise same-sex marriage in the world was the Netherlands in 2001. And in a study published in 2006, researchers were able to analyse any relationship between the legislation and teen suicide reduction. Firstly, they noted that homosexual men were at a much higher risk for suicide than heterosexual men. They also found that younger homosexuals were not at a lower risk for suicide than older homosexuals in comparison with their heterosexual counterparts. And this is in a country with a comparatively much more tolerant climate regarding homosexuality than we are at the moment.

Then there is Sweden, who legalised same-sex marriage in 2009. Research conducted in 2016 went even further than those in the US or the Netherlands. These guys went crazy and conducted an analysis on whether the risk of suicide was different for same-sex married couples than for different-sex couples. 

Yep, let’s go straight to it and see if there is a relationship. And again, unfortunately, the news is bad.

What they discovered was that same-sex married couples evidence a much higher risk for suicide than other married couples. In a country with a very progressive attitude towards LGBT issues, same-sex married women demonstrate a slightly higher suicide risk than their different-sex married peers, whilst same-sex married men are at a three times greater risk for suicide than different-sex married men.

Ok, take a breath. What does all this mean? A whole pile of numbers, but what does it mean?

Well, Dear Reader, unfortunately I think it means we’ve possibly, and I say possibly, been sold a lemon. The available data does not support any claim that introduction of same-sex marriage legislation will have a positive impact on the level of teen suicide. Unfortunately, it would appear that, especially for men, the pressures of surviving as a same-sex attracted person are not related to legislation but on societal pressures.

The evidence in Australia is clear. Over 60% of the surveyed population are supportive of same-sex marriage and I would imagine this support flows over into their daily lives, with little to no discrimination against their same-sex brethren. Changing the law won’t change their attitude, they’re already supportive. And it won’t change the mind of those who aren’t. 

Our beliefs and values aren’t something that can be turned on or off like a tap. They are what they are, and our society is not going to change overnight due to some thrown together bit of legislation that the government hasn’t even worked out yet.

But maybe we are different. Oh Dear Reader, I hope we are.


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