Researchers analyzed data from over 750,000 students who filled out the state-level Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey between the years 1999 and 2015.
States that adopted marriage equality laws during that 16-year period experienced an average 14% decline in suicide attempts by lesbian, gay and bisexual students. The researchers estimated that marriage equality laws may have prevented as many as 134,000 students per year from attempting suicide.
Why do marriage equality laws help so much?
According to researchers, policies preventing same-sex marriage "constitute a form of structural stigma" that label and otherize LGB teens, not to mention deny them a number of rights.
Legalizing same-sex marriage often doesn't just mean changing a law, researchers reported. When marriage equality was being debated state by state, it led to more media attention and visibility for LGB people and increased social support for queer rights. As popular opinion evolved, that could have led to more familial acceptance and improved mental health for queer teens.
By the numbers
In the study, 12.7% of students surveyed belonged to a sexual minority: 2.3% identified as lesbian or gay, 6.4% were bisexual and 4% were unsure. The overall percentage of high school students who attempted suicide prior to marriage equality was 8.6%, while the rate among LGB student was more than three times higher: 28.5%.
In an editorial published alongside the study, Columbia University professor Mark L. Hatzenbuehler argued for the study's importance, especially given that suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24, and that LGB youth are two to seven times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts. Hatzenbuehler called identifying the reasons for high suicide rates among LGBTQ youth a "significant public health priority."
This research, the study's authors concluded, shows that avoiding or lifting laws that are akin to state-sanctioned homophobia are good not only for the health of queer folks, but reduces overall suicide rates, as well.
If ending anti-LGBTQ laws can help the mental health of young queer people, someone should tell lawmakers in North Carolina and Texas, where anti-trans bathroom bills are either still on the books are or currently being weighed.