Proponents of same-sex marriage advocated for legalization not just because they saw it as a basic human and legal right for all couples to marry, but many also argued that equality under the law could lift up young people feeling lost and hopeless.
Data is emerging that suggests this theory is valid.
Each year since 1991, a sample of high school students in the US participate in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, an annual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. The anonymous survey, roughly 90 questions long, asks about everything from cyber bullying to sexual assault to carrying weapons to dating violence, and beyond. There is also a section of the survey that asks about students’ feelings of hopelessness, whether they have attempted suicide, and if so, how many times.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, but gay, lesbian, and bisexual students surveyed are far more likely to have made a suicide attempt than their straight peers, 29% to about 6%, respectively. The survey does not ask about gender identity. Researchers analyzed data collected between 1999 and 2015, and focused on studying differences in survey results between states that legalized same-sex marriage during that time, and those that did not.
The study found that in the 32 states passing marriage equality measures between 2004 and 2015, youth suicide attempts decreased overall, even among students who identified as heterosexual. But among students who reported being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, suicide attempt rates dropped by 14%. There was no change the rate of suicide attempt in states that did not have marriage equality as of January 2015.
Researchers noted that as with all studies, a simple correlation does not mean causation. However the link between the decrease in attempts among LGB students in just these states is worth contemplation. It suggests, as supporters have been saying for years, that societal stigma towards the LGBT community is harmful to sexual minority youth, and can increase feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Even though most high schoolers are not thinking about marriage, achieving the legal right brings a sense of legitimacy and equality, and leads to a normalization of same-sex relationships and counters the sense that they are wrong or immoral.
For more on this study and the results:
JAMA Pediatrics study
CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS)
Legalized same-sex marriage is linked to fewer youth suicide attempts
Same-sex marriage laws might decrease teen suicide attempt rates, says study
Same-sex marriage laws linked to fewer youth suicide attempts, new study says
Teen suicide attempts fell as same-sex marriage became legal