Canadian schools with explicit anti-homophobia interventions such as gay-straight alliances (GSAs) may reduce the odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts among both sexual minority and straight students, according to a new study by University of British Columbia researchers.
Gay-straight alliances are student-led clubs that aim to make the school community a safer place for all students regardless of their sexual orientation. Their members include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their straight allies.
"We know that LGBTQ students are at higher risk for suicide, in part because they are more often targeted for bullying and discrimination," says Elizabeth Saewyc, lead author of the study and professor with the UBC School of Nursing. "But heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it's better for students' mental health, no matter what their orientation."
LGBTQ youth and heterosexual students in schools with anti-homophobia policies and GSAs had lower odds of discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts, primarily when both strategies were enacted, or when the polices and GSAs had been in place for three years or more.
Published in the International Journal of Child, Youth, and Family Studies and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the study drew on data from the British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey to test the link between school policies and programs, discrimination due to perceived sexual orientation, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
The researchers previously found that Canadian high schools with GSAs in place for three years or more have a positive effect on both gay and straight students' problem alcohol use.
NB: The study, School based strategies to reduce suicidal ideation, suicide attempts and discrimination among sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents in Western Canada is available here.
Anti-homophobic interventions and discrimination, suicide
About the study
The study used data from the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society for grades 8 through 12, which involved 21,708 students. Participating school districts represent 92 per cent of enrolled students across the province. One in five students attended school in districts with anti-homophobic bullying policies and one in three attended schools with GSAs. Sixty per cent of students were in schools with neither.
In schools with gay-straight alliances implemented three or more years ago:
- The odds of homophobic discrimination and suicidal thoughts were reduced by more than half among lesbian, gay, bisexual boys and girls compared to schools with no GSA.
- There were also significantly lower odds of sexual orientation discrimination for heterosexual boys and girls.
- Heterosexual boys were half as likely to attempt suicide as those in schools without GSAs.
In schools where anti-homophobic policies have been in place for more than three years:
- The odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts for gay and bisexual boys were more than 70 per cent lower. Suicide attempts among lesbian and bisexual girls were two-thirds lower.
- Heterosexual boys had 27 per cent lower odds of suicidal thoughts than heterosexual boys in schools without such policies.