SUICIDE: Religious counselling linked to increased suicide rate among LGB persons

[25 June 2014] - A new study finds that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals (LGB) who sought mental health treatment from health care providers were no less likely to attempt suicide than LGB people who did not seek any treatment at all, but seeking help from religious or spiritual sources was associated with higher odds of a suicide attempt. The study, entitled, “The Role of Help-Seeking in Preventing Suicide Attempts among Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,” is co-authored by Ilan H. Meyer, Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, Merilee Teylan, Medical School, Harvard University, and Sharon Schwartz, Department of Epidemiology, Columbia University.

The study is the first to examine whether seeking various forms of mental health treatment is associated with lower odds of a suicide attempt in a diverse group of LGB adults. It finds that only about 16 per cent of LGB people who made a serious suicide attempt sought mental health treatment from a health professional prior to the attempt; about 13 per cent sought religious or spiritual treatment prior to the attempt.

The study finds that seeking treatment from a mental health or medical provider did not reduce the odds of a suicide attempt. Respondents who sought mental health or medical treatment at some time prior to their suicide attempt (or, among those who did not attempt suicide, prior to the age when suicide might have been attempted) were as likely as respondents who did not seek any mental health treatment to have a suicide attempt or serious suicide attempt after this time. However, counselling from a religious or spiritual advisor was associated with worse outcomes. Compared with individuals who did not seek help at all, those who sought help from a religious or spiritual advisor were more likely later to attempt suicide. 

“The findings are troubling because seeking treatment is a recommended suicide prevention strategy and this study’s results show no more positive effect for people who sought treatment. More troubling is the finding that individuals who sought religious or spiritual treatment had higher odds of later attempting suicide than those who did not seek treatment at all,” said co-author Ilan H. Meyer, PhD, Williams Senior Scholar of Public Policy.

“More studies are needed to assess the efficacy of treatment for LGB people with suicidal ideation in preventing future suicide attempts. But, even without further study, public health officials and health service providers ought to ensure that LGB individuals who seek mental health treatment, whether it is in medical or religious settings, receive competent mental health services that is relevant to their needs,” said Dr. Meyer.

The study also finds:

  • Of the LGB respondents, 17 per cent reported a suicide attempt and 8 per cent reported a serious suicide attempt over their lifetime.
  • On average, the age of serious suicide attempts coincided with major coming out milestones (e.g., the age when an LGB person recognises his or her sexual identity), with first suicide attempt occurring at a mean age of 17 (range 7 – 39). People whose first suicide attempt was at an older age (after adolescence) also had later coming out milestones and, like people who had an earlier suicide attempt, their suicide attempts were timed around these coming out milestones.
  • A significantly larger proportion of White LGBs (58 per cent) sought treatment from medical and mental health professionals prior to a suicide attempt than Black (12 per cent) and Latino (17 per cent) LGBs, but significantly more Blacks (24 per cent) than White (8 per cent) and Latino (7 per cent) LGBs sought treatment from religious or spiritual advisors prior to a suicide attempt.

The data analysed in the current study were obtained as part of Project Stride, a large epidemiological study that investigated the relationships among stress, identity, and mental health in diverse LGB and heterosexual populations. The study was conducted in New York City in 2004 – 05 with support of the National Institute of Mental Health (grant # R01MH066058 to Ilan H. Meyer, PhD).

Further Information

Author org: 
The Williams Institute

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