A large new study that analyzed survey data from adolescents has some disturbing findings about teens and suicide. The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, analyzed data from 120,617 teens that was collected over nearly three years. Overall, researchers found that nearly 14 percent of all teenagers who participated in the survey said they had tried to kill themselves.
The numbers were much higher for transgender or nonbinary teens: Slightly more than half of transgender male teens (50.8 percent) said they had tried to kill themselves, while 41.8 percent of teens who identified as neither male nor female, and nearly 30 percent of transgender female teens said the same thing. About 28 percent of teens who identified themselves as “questioning” their sexual orientation also said they had tried to kill themselves.
Those numbers are starkly higher than those for cisgender female and male teens, who reported rates of 17.6 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively.
The findings echo the results of a huge survey of transgender people released in 2016 by the National Center for Transgender Equality. That survey found that 40 percent of the 27,715 transgender people who were surveyed said they had tried to kill themselves at some point.
Unfortunately, this isn’t anything new. Stories of transgender teens committing suicide have made headlines for years. In March, a mother shared the suicide letter left by her son, Eric Peter Verbeeck, who was transitioning into a woman named Hope, with the People magazine. “I felt that I could no longer live my life as a lie, living as a boy instead of the girl I knew I could become,” the letter read. “I was losing hope in the world and could not see my way out of the wrong body so I decided it was time for my life to end as a whole. Please forgive me for lying to you and any and all sins that I have committed.”
In 2017, Leo Etherington, a transgender male, took his life because “he was angry with [his] school,” which wouldn’t allow him to change the name he was born with (Louise), his father told the Guardian.
“It’s not surprising that a lot of trans youth attempt suicide, but that amount is shocking,” Camden Hargrove, the community and digital organizer at the National LGBTQ Task Force, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There are a lot more youth that are feeling like they understand their gender identify earlier, but that doesn’t mean that there are resources available or that families are supportive.”
Joshua Safer, MD, executive director of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery agrees. The findings “are not surprising at all. Transgender individuals — and kids in particular — are exposed to quite a bit of hostility in society and a lack of acceptance,” Safer says. “Teenagers are certainly at an age where individuals are more vulnerable to these thoughts and actions.”
As for the marked difference between suicide rates among transgender male and female teens, “it’s difficult to speculate the different reasons why teenage trans boys report a higher rate,” Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. In fact, in adult transgender males, it’s often the opposite, Safer says. “Adult transgender males sometimes have an easier time than transgender females do,” he says.
Ultimately, the data shows that more work needs to be done when it comes to suicide prevention rates in the transgender community, especially among teens. “These harrowing statistics lay bare the urgency of building welcoming and safe communities for LGBTQ young people, particularly for transgender youth,” Ellen Kahn, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s director of the Children, Youth and Families Program, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The distressing reality reflected in this study is preventable, and our nation’s schools, political leaders, and communities can take concrete steps to combat this epidemic.”
Chase Strangio, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, sheds further light on society’s role in the statistics. “The fact that we gender young children and code so many things as being ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’ or ‘boys’ bodies’ as opposed to ‘girls’ bodies’ makes growing up trans exceedingly difficult,” Strangio tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Not only do you face the overt discrimination from family, friends, educators, and others but the alienation from and rejection of your body. It can feel bleak to imagine a future in such a world on top of the many other factors that make adolescence difficult.”
“We all have a role to play in increasing the life chances and survival opportunities for transgender youth,” Strangio says. “It starts with breaking down the gendered structures we impose on youth and giving them tools to inhabit their bodies and exist in the world safely and with support.”
If you have a transgender teen in your life, it’s crucial to “create an accepting and welcoming environment” for them, Safer says. “The second most important thing is to talk to them,” he says. “If you have a transgender kid with whom you have some contact, simply talking about life, the stresses of life, and how those can be dealt with is part of the solution.”
“In the past people thought that not talking about these issues would be reasonable,” Safer continues. “But actually discussing these things and creating opportunities for the kids to have a safe place to talk about what they’re thinking is the better strategy.”
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