Friday, October 22, 2010

Supporting Gay Youth as a Way to Prevent Suicide

By Tristan Gorrindo, MD

Coming out of the closet is one of the hardest things that a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person will do.

“Coming out,” is the process of revealing to friends, parents, family members, and acquaintances that he or she is gay. It is more that just a simple act or decision to announce that a person is gay, but rather a process that unfolds overtime, usually in small steps. For many people, it involves telling one person, then a group of friends or family members, then classmates or co-workers, and finally the world at large. But for each person, the journey is different and often filled with emotional ups and downs.

Recent events in the national media have highlighted the issues surrounding coming out and youth suicide. By some estimates, as many as nine gay youth died by suicide since September 1, 2010. Government officials and celebrities have publicly referred to this as a national crisis.

Many population scientists have tried to understand why gay teens are at such high risk for suicide -- by some estimates 7 times the national average for their age. And although there are many possible contributors to what might make a gay teen suicidal, we must first remember that all teens, gay and straight alike, are struggling with basic questions about self-identity.

A friend of mine once described being a teenager is like, “being at a costume ball where the costumes and guests are constantly changing.” As part of normal teenage development, teens are “trying on” different roles, different groups of friends, and even different kinds of dress. It is a time when teens are first experimenting with the idea of romantic relationships and at the same time trying to separate from their parents. Gay teens have the added burden of sorting out the confusing, often negative messages from the culture about what it means to be gay. When these ingredients mix -- unsure sense of self-identify, novice experience with romance, trying to separate from one’s parents, and fear of what it means to be gay -- gay teens run the risk of feeling quite isolated and alone.

Regardless of one’s personal views of homosexuality, I think we can all agree on the importance of supporting our youth during difficult times. The American Psychiatric Association is committed to reducing the stigma around homosexuality and to promoting the psychological health of gay, straight, and bisexual individuals.

We owe it to our teens to make sure that they know that coming out is not a process that they have to go through alone. A wide variety of resources exist, from grass-roots YouTube videos which offer gay teens hope, as in The Make It Better Project, to 24-hour suicide hotline for gay teens offered through The Trevor Project. Additionally, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline also is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts. The Healthy Minds website is a source of clear factual information on sexual orientation. And let us not forget the parents that may also be struggling with how to help their gay child; for them there is support and advice offered through PFLAG.

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