Religious Faith Linked to Suicidal Behavior in LGBQ Adults

(Reuters Health) – Although religiosity is generally linked to a reduced risk of suicide, the reverse may be true for some lesbian, gay and questioning young adults, researchers say.

Based on data from more than 21,000 US college students, researchers found that increased religious feeling and commitment was linked to an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and actions for participants who identified as LGBQ.

“Religion has generally been seen as something that would protect someone from suicidal thoughts or trying to kill themselves, and in our study, our evidence suggests this may not be the case for everyone, especially for those we call sexual minority people,” said one of the study’s authors, John Blosnich of the Center for Injury Control Research at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Previous research suggests that belonging to a religious denomination reduces risky behaviors among young people, such as substance use and unprotected sex, Blosnich noted in a phone interview. Religiosity has also been associated with a lower risk of suicidal behaviors, but some evidence suggests that the impact of religion may be different for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning (LGBQ) people.

The study team analyzed data from the 2011 University of Texas at Austin Research Consortium survey of 21,247 college students aged 18 to 30, of whom 2.3 % who said they were lesbian or gay, 3.3% who identified as bisexual and 1.1% who questioned their sexuality.

All participants rated the importance of religion in their lives on a scale of 1 to 5, from “not important” to “very important”. Between 21% and 28% of LGBQ participants rated the importance of religion to them as a 4 or 5, compared to 39% of heterosexuals, researchers report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Questioning youth had the highest rate of recent suicidal thoughts, at 16.4%, compared to 3.7% of heterosexuals, 6.5% of lesbians/gays, and 11.4% of bisexuals. Lifetime suicide attempts were reported by 20% of bisexual youth, 17% of questioning youth, 14% of gay or lesbian youth, and 5% of heterosexual youth.

For bisexual youth, the importance of religion was not associated with suicidal behavior, while religiosity protected against suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts among heterosexual youth. But lesbians and gay men who said religion was important to them were 38% more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts. For lesbians only, religion was associated with a 52% increased likelihood of suicidal thoughts.

Respondents were almost three times more likely to have attempted suicide recently if they said religion was very important to them.

Among lesbians and gay men who said religion was not important to them, there was no association between sexual orientation and recent suicide attempts. But being gay significantly increased the likelihood of recent suicide attempts among people who said religion was very important to them.

“Some sexual minority people really disagree. They feel very confused or they feel like they’re in conflict with their faith because of who they are. It’s a very scary place,” Blosnich said.

“We are certainly not saying that religion, period, is bad; it is not,” he added. “There are a lot of sexual minority people who find great strength and great sources of support in their religious communities, but sadly we hear a lot of stories about people who don’t.

Faith-based partners in suicide prevention and intervention public health services “should be willing and equipped to assist all people who seek their services, regardless of sexual orientation,” the study authors write.

The study is limited by a lack of detail about whether a participant’s specific religion held stigmatizing views about sexual minorities, the authors note. Because the study population was drawn from an academic setting, it may not represent the general population, they add.

“We want to engage religious and faith-based providers in a way that benefits everyone,” Blosnich said. “Faith communities are major players in suicide prevention. We just want to make sure that the services people provide through faith-based organizations or religious community partners reach everyone who comes to them for help, regardless of their sexual orientation.

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, online March 15, 2018.