Students targeted because they're believed to be gay - as many as one in
seven young teens - are much more likely than others to be suicidal and
depressed, a new survey finds.
More than 10% of eighth-grade boys and girls reported that they're victimised
because of perceived sexual orientation, according to a large survey of students
in Washington state.
"It has a profound impact on their quality of life and the way they think of
themselves," said Donald Patrick, a professor of health services at the
University of Washington in Seattle. "Those in eighth grade are in a
particularly vulnerable position."
These children "feel alone in life, that they don't feel as good as other
people and their self-esteem is highly affected," Patrick said.
Bullying and suicide
The survey results don't offer insight into whether bullying contributes to
depression and suicidal thoughts in its victims. It's possible that kids with
existing mental illnesses may be more likely to be bullied and perceived as
Nor does the research establish a clear cause-and-effect relationship between
bullying and suicidal thoughts. But Patrick said "it's clear that there's an
association, and I wouldn't be so worried about the causation." Prior research
has also suggested that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children are more
likely to be suicidal and hurt themselves.
A string of teen suicides in 2010 - including the death of Rutgers University
freshman Tyler Clementi - put the issue in the public eye. Syndicated columnist
Dan Savage launched a campaign called "It Gets Better" to give hope to gay teens
that their lives will improve. Participants have included numerous celebrities
and politicians, including President Barack Obama.
Based on the new findings, bully-prevention programmes must address kids
picked on because of their sexual orientation, the study authors said.
'Promote comfortable and safe
The study is based on a 2010 survey of nearly 28 000 students in grades
eight, 10 and 12. Among boys, 14% of eighth-graders, 11% of 10th-graders and 9%
of 12th-graders reported being bullied within the previous month because they
were thought to be gay. The numbers were 11%, 10% and 6%, respectively, for
The survey defined bullying based on sexual orientation as being "bullied,
harassed or intimidated at school" because they were thought to be gay or
bisexual. It defined other types of bullying as when one or more students "say
or do nasty or unpleasant things" to another person or tease someone "repeatedly
in a way he or she finds offensive." In most cases, more students reported being
bullied for other reasons.
Compared to kids bullied for other reasons or not bullied at all, those
targeted because they were perceived to be gay were much more likely to have
considered suicide in the past year, to have been depressed in the past year and
to say they don't feel good about themselves.
For example, 26% of male 12th-graders targeted for being perceived as gay
said they had been suicidal within the past year, compared to 8% of those not
bullied. The rate also was more than three times greater for female seniors.
Brian Mustanski, an associate professor in the department of medical social
sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago,
said the survey has some strengths but fails to ask whether those bullied are
actually gay and not just perceived to be.
"Because of this, it is a major underestimate of the rate of bullying among
gay youth," he said.
Mustanski agreed with Patrick that teachers and school leaders need to
promote comfortable and safe environments. "While family and peer support have
important positive effects for gay youth and reduce feelings of suicide and
depression, you cannot 'support away' these toxic effects of bullying," he
"Schools and communities need to put in place policies and practices that
make schools and neighbourhoods safe for all kids," he said.
The Trevor Project offers a confidential suicide hotline for gay
teens and those questioning their sexuality.