Hopkins Study: Same-Sex Marriage Laws Associated with Drop in Teen Suicide Attempts

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Could the legalization of same-sex marriage have helped to reduce suicide attempts by U.S. high schoolers? A new study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School suggests so.

Suicide today is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults in the United States, behind unintentional injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But new research by a team from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, published yesterday in JAMA Pediatrics, finds state laws legalizing same-sex marriage helped to fight some of that increase among high schoolers in the last couple decades.

Such laws were associated with a 7-percent drop in suicide attempts by high school students from 1999 through 2015, and a 14-percent drop among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.

In total, that translated to 134,000 fewer suicide attempts per year.

Study leader Julia Raifman, a post-doctoral fellow in the Bloomberg School’s epidemiology department, said in a release that while high schoolers likely weren’t planning on getting married during that period, the reduced stigma about same-sex marriage may have made them “more hopeful for the future.”

Raifman and her team looked at 17 years’ worth of federal survey data from 32 of the 35 states that legalized same-sex marriage between 2004 and 2015. (Same-sex marriage is now legal across all 50 states, following the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.) Comparing the numbers with states that didn’t legalize same-sex marriage, they concluded suicide attempts dropped after the laws took effect.

Even widespread policy-related conversations about same-sex marriage may have helped to at least stunt growth in attempted suicides. If the topic became publicly prominent, say, for two years before a law took effect, suicide attempts would remain flat — though would not decline — during those years.

“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 new research from Hopkins suggests legalizing same-sex marriage could have helped the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with its Healthy People 2020 goal of reducing adolescent suicide rates by 10 percent by 2020.

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
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