Gay people in Ireland seven times more likely to attempt suicide

Gay Suicide Risk
Gay people in Ireland have a tenfold risk of self-harm behaviours (Credit: Adam Lau)

Gay people in Ireland are seven times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexuals, according to new research by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Professor Mary Cannon, a psychiatrist, who led the study, said the “striking” finding was a link between sexual orientation and mental ill health.

A hugely elevated risk of mood disorder, self harm and attempted suicide was found among lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth when Cannon’s team followed up a study started in 2001. “We know people who engage in suicide attempts and plans are at greater risk later from suicide,” said Cannon.

In 2001, 212 students aged 13-15 were randomly selected at several northside Dublin schools in a study to assess levels of mental disorder. About 80% agreed to take part in the recent follow-up survey.

About 6% identified themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The study found the mental health of this group was far worse than that of heterosexual peers.

“There were high rates of depression and about 50% had engaged in an act of deliberate self harm, such as minor cutting and overdoses, compared with less than 20% for the rest,” said Cannon. “It appears if you are of minority sexual orientation you are at a tenfold risk of self-harm behaviours.”

The reason is unclear, although there is evidence that being part of a minority group suffering discrimination is itself stressful. Cannon said research by the National Suicide Research Foundation indicates young people with worries about their sexual orientation and who were bullied had higher rates of self-harm. The disapproval of family members may also be a factor.

“They [the LGBT group] seem to have more problems in the family environment,” Cannon said. “Those who are working seem to be having some difficulties with colleagues. I think a lot of it is to do with these young people just not fitting into their environment.

Odhran Allen, director of mental health in the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network also described the findings as striking. Other research shows the experience of being LGBT in Ireland can have a negative impact on mental health, he said. “When LGBT people experience a number of stressful situations, such as fear of coming out, lack of support after coming out, harassment in their communities, or homophobic bullying, this increases their risk of self-harm and suicide,” he said.

Cannon and her team are now planning to look at other risk factors for self-harm and suicide attempts and to rank them. “My hunch would be that being of a minority sexual orientation may be quite high up the list,” she said.

Michael Barron, executive director of BeLonG To, a service for LGBT young people called the findings worrying. He said: “It is so important that families and communities understand that bullying and prejudice, far from being part of growing up, at putting young people’s lives at risk”

This article appeared first in The Sunday Times, Irish edition, 31/03/2013