Living in 'supportive' areas like Chicago and LA may reduce suicide risk for LGBTQ youth

Wed. May 11, 2011 8:44 PM by Joseph Erbentraut

While a recent Columbia University study, published last month in the Pediatrics journal, confirmed the increasingly recognized finding that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are far more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt or consider suicide, the study's suggestion of a correlation between youth living in "supportive" communities and having relatively lower suicide risk has made a fresh argument for increased awareness of the issue not just in progressive enclaves but in all corners of the country.

The study, based on a survey of over 30,000 eleventh-grade students in Oregon, specifically reported that 21.5 percent of LGB respondents were likely to have attempted suicide in the last 12 months, compared to only 4.2 percent of their heterosexual peers.

Taking into account their number of self-reported same-sex couples, proportion of registered Democrats, number of gay-straight alliances in schools and adherence to anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies specifically protecting lesbian, gay and bisexual students in their schools, the study also determined how "supportive" of queer youth each participating county in the state was.

When compared with the findings of suicide risk, LGB youth were markedly (25.5 percent) less likely to have attempted suicide at least once in a more supportive, positive environment than a negative one. Heterosexual youth, too, were less likely to attempt suicide in a more supportive, pro-LGBT community. The study did not, it should be noted, report on the experiences of transgender youth.

In larger cities with visible queer presences, including both Chicago and Los Angeles, the study represents good news, but LGBTQ youth advocates are quick to point out that, even in so-called "supportive" environments, many queer youth continue to face unique challenges requiring continued advocacy.

Joe Hollendoner, chief program officer and vice president of Howard Brown Health Center (as well as the former director of Howard Brown's Broadway Youth Center) said the study "really speaks to the fact of how one's environment can impact their mental health and wellness."

"The safer and more affirming that environment is, of course, the more self-esteem and increased sense of self-worth an individual will have," Hollendoner told

That said, Hollendoner was cautious to paint the experience of LGBTQ youth living in "supportive" environments with too broad a brush. In Chicago, he added, many queer youth still may feel isolated in ways that are very real -- particularly, he said, queer South siders who come to the city's North side (including Boystown) and may face a heightened experience of racism or LGBT youth from a lower-income background who may feel isolated because of their socioeconomic status.

"We can't just assume that because we live in a large city with great diversity that we always embrace and accept that diversity," Hollendoner added.

Michael Ferrera, head of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Community Center's LifeWorks youth development and mentoring program, was not surprised by the study's findings. More supportive areas tend to offer an array of resources that help LGBTQ youth who may be struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity, including access to community centers, adult role models and other resources to fight feelings of isolation, he said.

"But the reality is these youth still all go to schools that are largely not progressive," Ferrera said. "We're still living in a world that lacks acceptance of LGBTQ youth and lacks access to role models for them. We can't overlook the fact that they are still very much at risk."

Further, Ferrera added, many queer youth face other issues that may compound their suicide risk, including the vast overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth who are homeless. Their economic struggles, including access to higher education, finding employment and managing their health care, cannot be brushed aside. It is estimated that somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT.

Frank Walker, executive director of Chicago's South Loop-based Youth Pride Center, added that his organization is working to turn the predominating story of LGBT youth and suicide risk around with a campaign, titled Be Great, centered on ideas of resilience and fabulousness. They've even lent their model to advocates working to get an LGBT center off the ground in Alabama.

"We are trying to look at the positive side of being an LGBT youth in America today," Walker said. "We hope that the campaign will touch youth and link the kids who are being bullied but still being great with those who need support. It's a different way of reaching out."

For youth throughout the country, the Trevor Project is a free, confidential 24-hour hotline providing access to counselors for LGBTQ youth. Call 1-866-4U-TREVOR.

For youth in Chicago, here are a few helpful resources, many of which offer their own drop-in programs, social and support groups and other services:
-Broadway Youth Center, 3179 N. Broadway
-Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted
-The Night Ministry, 3262 N. Clark
-Vida/SIDA, 2703 W. Division
-Youth Pride Center, 637 S. Dearborn

For youth in the Los Angeles area, here are more resources:
-Bienestar Youth Program, eleven locations in Southern California
-L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, 1625 Schrader Blvd.
-Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance, 860 Gilbert St. (San Bernadino)