LETTER : Suicide warning for gay youth

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The Independent Online
From Mr Peter McColl

Sir: Pete Price's distressing story (Section Two; "I'm gay and I don't need a psychiatrist", 24 October) is very relevant today in terms of personal, professional and family responses to being young and gay or lesbian. Eight research studies in the US between 1987 and 1994 found suicide attempt rates of 20 per cent to 40 per cent in young lesbian, gay and bisexual cohorts.

One in five respondents to a survey conducted in 1983 by the London Gay Teenage Group reported a suicide attempt. Although sexuality was identified as a risk factor for youth suicide by the Department of Health in a 1991 Health of the Nation booklet, no recent review of youth suicide in the British psychiatric literature makes mention of it and the issue appeared nowhere in a 1994 NHS health advisory service review document Confronting the challenge (of) suicide prevention.

Although aversion therapy in this context has been discredited and homosexuality per se is no longer classified as an illness, one in 10 GP respondents to a 1989 survey considered this still the case, and one in three thought gay men neurotic, effeminate and a danger to children.

Research suggests that the mean age at which a suicide attempt occurs is 16 years among lesbian and gay youth. Since this is a mean figure, approximately half will have been younger. Most young people depend on their families or friends for support and validation. However, a recent study of workers with lesbian and gay youth suggests that problems in these relationships are a specific source of distress for their clients. Other stresses includ isolation and loneliness, having to hide one's sexuality, low self-esteem, an internalised negative image, and experience of emotional, verbal, physical and sexual abuse. One in five youth workers thought that distress revealed itself in tobacco, alcohol or drug use or sexual behaviour.

Recent initiatives in suicide prevention have focused on high-risk groups. As a matter of common sense, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered young people are likely to constitute such a group. Unfortunately, there is little contemporary evidence that we as a society are mature enough to address the needs of non-heterosexual youth, and until we are some of them will continue to experience distress, to harm themselves, and maybe die.

Yours faithfully,

Peter McColl

Sheffield, South Yorkshire

24 October

The writer is as psychiatric senior registrar