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Study: Teens in conservative states tend to be more suicidal

Teenagers who live in politically conservative parts of the country are more depressed and suicidal than teens who live in politically progressive parts of the country, according to a study by Columbia University psychologist Mark Hatzenbuehler published this week. The study comes as the nation, spurred by media coverage of recent tragic youth deaths, reckons with the fact that school harassment drives gay young people in particular to depression and suicide. It also comes in the wake of competing days dedicated to drawing attention to school bullying, the Day of Silence organized by gay rights groups and the Day of Dialogue organized by Colorado Springs-based Christian group Focus on the Family.

The Associated Press reports:

Suicide attempts by gay teens – and even straight kids – are more common in politically conservative areas where schools don’t have programs supporting gay rights, a study involving nearly 32,000 high school students found.

Those factors raised the odds and were a substantial influence on suicide attempts even when known risk contributors like depression and being bullied were considered…

[Hatzenbuehler's] study found a higher rate of suicide attempts even among kids who weren’t bullied or depressed when they lived in counties less supportive of gays and with relatively few Democrats. A high proportion of Democrats was a measure used as a proxy for a more liberal environment.

Hatzenbuehler based his research on surveys taken of 32,000 11th-graders in Oregon. He found that in the most conservative counties, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens were 20 percent more likely to have attempted suicide than in more progressive counties.

Roughly 25 percent of gay teens in the conservative counties had attempted suicide, compared to 20 percent in the more liberal counties.

Stats on straight teens were similarly lopsided. Roughly 4 percent of straight kids attempt suicide but straight kids were 9 percent more likely to attempt suicide in more conservative counties.

Analysts of the research, including Hatzenbuehler, say that school rules and programs designed to support lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual youth boost the psychological health of all students.

Last month during debate over Colorado anti-bullying and same-sex civil unions bills, gay students and youth workers gave testimony that laws that discriminate against gay adults– like those that provide key domestic partnership rights for straight people and not for gay people– foster an environment echoed in school offices, classrooms, hallways and playgrounds.

Brad Clark, director of gay rights group One Colorado this week wrote an op-ed for the Denver Post on Friday’s Day of Silence. Clark pressed Focus on the Family to rethink its Day of Dialogue in light of the well-documented grave problem presented to gay students by anti-gay school harassment.

In the days following the Day of Silence, I understand that you’re promoting an event, the Day of Dialogue. According to your website, it’s a day where young people are encouraged to start conversations with classmates about God’s plan for sexuality.

But I fear that the Day of Dialogue is really about one thing: giving students language and materials to tell their LGBT classmates that they are wrong in God’s eyes and should pursue help to change who they are.

I hope that I’m wrong.

Last week, Focus on the Family posted this video introducing its Day of Dialogue.

This legislative session in Colorado, Reps Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, introduced House Bill 1254 (pdf). The bill would rework anti-bullying guidelines and establish a board within the state Department of Education to revise rules of conduct and reporting and to raise money to pay for anti-bullying research and programs. The bill sponsors told the press they were looking to act preemptively to head off a “sensational suicide” in Colorado.

As the Colorado Independent reported in December, according to a 2009 Healthy Kids Colorado survey (pdf), roughly 19 percent of all Colorado high school kids report being bullied. Roughly 30 percent say they have gotten into fights. Roughly 7 percent have been threatened with weapons.

Last year more than 5 percent of all Colorado high schoolers stayed home from school for fear of bullying. That’s 12,000 teen students, and among certain demographic groups, the percentages soar. Linda Kanan, director of the Department of Public Safety’s School Safety Resource Center, told the Independent that roughly 37 percent of gay and transgender kids avoid school for fear of bullying.

Hat tip to Margaret Hartmann at Jezebel.

Got a tip? Story pitch? Send us an e-mail to tips@washingtonindependent.com

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