Suicide risk higher among young gay people

Younger gay people often face difficulties Keystone

Young homosexual people show a higher suicide risk than their heterosexual counterparts, often suffering bullying and lack of support, a Swiss study has found.

This content was published on May 16, 2009 - 10:23

The Suicidal Tendencies and Sexual Orientation report is being made public on Saturday at a special seminar in Zurich on dealing with sexual-orientation issues in schools.

The report was commissioned by several groups, including Pink Cross, Switzerland's largest organisation representing gay men.

It looked at research on suicides and suicide attempts of homosexuals aged between 16 and 25 years old, both in Switzerland and abroad.

"The conclusion can be drawn from all the quoted studies that homosexual and bisexual adolescents are exposed to a higher suicide risk than heterosexual men and women," the study's author Christian Leu told in an email interview.

The exact rate is difficult to quantify because all the studies do not take into account the same criteria, but Pink Cross believes it could be between two and ten-fold.

"It is not sexual orientation that is the reason for a higher suicide risk, but the risk factors to which gays, lesbians and bisexuals are more susceptible or that only apply to them, such as Coming Out," Leu said.

High suicide rate

Overall, Switzerland has a suicide rate higher than the European average. Every year there are around 1,400 suicides– the majority of which are men.

Figures from the Federal Statistics Office show that in 2006 suicide was the second most common cause of death among 15-44 year olds after accidents.

Around five to ten per cent of the population are estimated to be homosexual.

Pierre Schommer, a member of Pink Cross and organiser of the sexual orientation issues in schools seminar, said that the fact that the suicide risk was higher among homosexual youths was worrying.

"It's because they are bullied, discriminated against, and because they are not accepted and don't find a way of life for their homosexuality in society," he said.

Often harassment and violence takes place at schools, which in Switzerland are often attended until the age of 20. Adolescents often react badly to someone they perceive as not behaving "normally" or like a "typical" man or woman, Schommer explained.

Under pressure

This can result in a lot of tension. Although he already knew at puberty, Schommer did not admit that he was gay until he was 24 years old.

"It's a terrible pressure and I wouldn't like to have to undergo it again. You have to hide, get yourself a girlfriend for a party, but you hate that and don't feel comfortable. There's a lot of social pressure," he told

Revealing their sexual orientation can be a difficult experience for some young people, with a rejection by relatives or friends leading to isolation and loneliness.

"These kinds of negative experiences are those which can end in a low self-esteem, stress, mood problems, drug abuse or suicide," Leu said.

School, where so much time is spent in adolescence, can therefore be a risk area – but it can also be a safe haven.

Targeting attitudes

The seminar, which is being organised by the same groups which commissioned the report, will focus on how schools can help change attitudes towards homosexuality and bisexuality and will target teachers and teacher training colleges.

The idea is that the issue should be dealt with fairly regularly at all stages of schooling, in a way that is age-appropriate– for example in Kindergarten it could be in a story book where the prince has two fathers.

In other cases, it could be approached through a social, historical or cultural context - such as by highlighting a famous gay figure, like Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit - Schommer said.

"Not in a context where it is put together with Aids and prostitution," he added.

Some teachers feel more comfortable with the subject than others, Schommer concedes. French-speaking Switzerland takes a different approach to the German-speaking part, using trained experts.

The report points to the fact that many studies have shown that having a special teaching plan and support groups can be helpful.

"We need teachers to be aware of homosexuality. They should not be afraid of it and should be able to deal with it," said Schommer.

Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich,

Suicide in Switzerland

Suicides account for around 1,400 deaths a year in Switzerland, of which 400 are women and 1,000 are men. This is one to two per cent of overall deaths. It is thought that there may be a number of "hidden" suicides among the figures for accidents (top cause of death for those aged 15-44).

The World Health Organization puts the rate at 24.7 per 100,000 for men and 10.5 per 100,000 for women (2005) for Switzerland. This is higher than in most other European countries.

For comparison: Germany 19.7 (men), 6.6 (women) per 100,000 in 2004, Britain 10.4 (men), 3.2 (women) and the United States 17.7 (men), 4.5 (women), both for 2005.

It has been estimated that in Switzerland around ten per cent of the population have attempted suicide at some point in their lives and that one in two have had suicidal thoughts.

Source: Suicidal Tendencies and Sexual Orientation study, WHO

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Sexual Orientation and Schools

The seminar at Zurich University on May 16 is organised by the Experts Group Education, which is made up of members of Pink Cross, the Lesbian organisation LOS, and the association of friends and parents of gay and lesbians FELS. The group works on the issue raising awareness of sexual orientation in schools.

The Suicidal Tendencies and Sexual Orientation study was commissioned because research on the topic of suicide risk among young homosexual people is lacking in Switzerland. What is not clear are the differences between gays and lesbians on this issue, as most studies have concentrated on men.

There is a need to raise awareness among health and social services and in society in general, not just in schools. The report also recommended that suicide prevention as a whole be better coordinated in Switzerland. Families are also key.

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