The Effect of Hate Crime Laws on Teen Suicide

Teen suicide is a serious problem in the U.S. and worldwide. The increase in teen suicide in the U.S. is well-documented, with the most recent alarm sounded from the top public health official in the country: the Surgeon General. A report published in late 2021 called “Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory” presents a set of facts about teen suicide in simple, broad terms that are easy to understand:

  1. 2007-2018: suicide rates increased by 57% among people ages 10-24
  2. 2009-2019: The number of 9th-12th graders seriously considering suicide increased by 36%
  3. 2009-2019: The number of 9th-12th graders with a suicide plan increased by 44%

ort also included information on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on teen mental health emergencies and suicide-related emergency room (ER) visits.

  • ER visits for mental health crisis for teens (ages 12-17):
    • Increased 31% between 2019 and 2021
  • ER visits for teen suicide attempts (ages 12-17):
    • Increased 27.5% between 2019 and 2021

Finally, the latest statistics from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2019 YRBS) show that in 2019, 8.9 percent of high school students in the U.S. attempted suicide, and 18.8 percent seriously considered attempting suicide. In real numbers, that means 2.2 million teens attempted suicide and 4.7 million teens seriously considered attempting suicide.

Those numbers are far too high. Those numbers are also frustrating when it’s clear that in many cases, with appropriate treatment and support, suicide is preventable. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 80 percent of teens of teens who attempt suicide give clear warning signs before their first suicide attempt.

That means we need to know what to look for – and understand who’s most vulnerable.

Teen Suicide: Who’s at Risk?

In an article called “Five Profiles of Adolescents at Elevated Risk for Suicide Attempts,” a group of research scientists from the Pediatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network (PECARN) identified the following set of factors that significantly increase risk of teen suicide.

Teen Suicide Risk Factors

  1. Teens diagnosed with a mental health or substance use disorder. The disorders most often associated with teen suicide or suicidal behavior include:
  2. Identification as LGBTQ +:
    • For LGBTQI individuals age 10-24, suicide is a leading causes of death
    • LGBTQI youth are four times more likely to report self-harm
    • LGBTQI youth are three times more report suicidal ideation and/or attempt suicide
  3. Traumatic Childhood Experiences
  4. Childhood abuse or neglect: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  5. Grief or loss, including a death in the family, or the loss of a close friend
  6. Social isolation
  7. History of suicidal behavior

We’ll focus on item #2 in that list above: the increased suicide risk documented among teens who identify as members of the LGBTQI+ community. We’ll focus on this group for two reasons. First, members of the LGBTQI+ community are at higher risk for all of the other risk factors on the list, with the exception of grief or loss. That fact compounds their risk, by default. Second, teens who identify as LGBTQI+ have higher rates of suicidal ideation than all other teen demographic groups – we’ll share detailed data on that fact below.

There’s a third reason we’ll focus on suicide among LGBTQI+ teens in this article: a recent study on the effect of hate crime legislation on teen suicide included extremely informative data, which we think can help address the growing problem of teen suicide in the U.S.

We’ll get to that study in a moment. First, we’ll share the most recent and comprehensive set of teen suicide statistics available.

Teen Suicide in the U.S.: Five Years of Data

It’s important for parents, teachers, teens themselves, and anyone involved in the life of a teen to understand the scope of the problem. We offered basic statistics above, but now we’ll go deeper. We collected the following data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the 2019 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2019 YRBS).

Teen Suicide: High School Students Grades 9-12, 2015-2019

Seriously Considered Attempting Suicide

  • 2015: 17.7%
    • Straight: 14.8%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 33.7%
    • Bisexual: 45.8%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 42.8%
    • Seeking: 31.9%
  • 2017: 17.2%
    • Straight: 13.3%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 41.4%
    • Bisexual: 49.6%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 47.7%
    • Seeking: 31.8%
  • 2019: 18.8%
    • Straight: 14.5%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 41.2%
    • Bisexual: 46.8%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 46.8%
    • Seeking: 30.4%

Made a Suicide Plan

  • 2015: 14.6%
    • Straight: 11.9%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 30.1%
    • Bisexual: 40.9%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 38.2%
    • Seeking: 27.9%
  • 2017: 13.6%
    • Straight: 10.4%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 33.2%
    • Bisexual: 39.4%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 38.0%
    • Seeking: 25.6%
  • 2019: 15.7%
    • Straight: 12.1%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 32.5%
    • Bisexual: 42.5%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 40.2%
      • Seeking: 23.9%

Attempted Suicide

  • 2015: 8.6%
    • Straight: 6.4%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 21.3%
    • Bisexual: 31.8%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 29.4%
    • Seeking: 13.7%
  • 2017: 7.4%
    • Straight: 5.4%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 18.6%
    • Bisexual: 24.2%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 23.0%
    • Seeking: 14.3%
  • 2019: 8.9%
    • Straight: 6.4%
    • Gay/Lesbian: 19.5%
    • Bisexual: 24.5%
    • Gay, lesbian, or bisexual: 23.4%
    • Seeking: 16.1%

The first thing we want you to take away from this data is the extreme disparity in suicidal behavior that exists between teens who identify as straight and teens who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. These numbers tell us that, on average, gay, lesbian, or bisexual were close to four times as likely to seriously consider suicide, three times as likely to make a suicide plan, and almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

That’s significant – and it’s something we can act on by prioritizing screening for suicidal behavior among teens who identify as LGBTI+, with a focus on LGBTQI+ teens who have multiple risk factors, such as a mental health disorder and an experience of childhood trauma.

There’s something else we noticed in this data as well, that brings us directly to the topic of this article: how public policy affects teen suicide. When we look at the rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQI+ teens, we see a dramatic decrease in suicide attempts among gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens between 2015 and 2017.

There was a major, nationwide shift in public policy in the summer of 2015, after data collection for the 2015 YRBS: the Supreme Court of the United States established same-sex marriage as a right protected by the Constitution.

Did that have an impact on suicide among LGBTQI+ teens?

The data from this new study indicates that it may have.

Hate Crime Laws and Teen Suicide

Published in June 2022, the peer-reviewed research article “The Association Between Hate Crime Laws That Enumerate Sexual Orientation and Adolescent Suicide Attempts” connects dots that, for many people, need to be connected. But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves, because we understand that stigma against LGBTQI+ teens is a nationwide problem, and that entrenched viewpoints on members of the LGBTQI+ community fade neither quickly nor on their own.

In most cases, cultural norms and attitudes work in a top-down manner. Our leaders set the example through speech and behavior that represents their beliefs, which represent the beliefs and aspirations of their constituents. Those beliefs and cultural priorities are codified into public policy, and then into law. These laws and policies affect how we think, act, and behave. It’s a two-way street: our ideas make their way up to our leaders, who enact them into law and policy, which, in turn, impact the way the general public thinks about and sees issues large and small.

That’s why this study got our attention. Here’s a brief description of the study and hypothesis, in the words of the study authors:

“In this study, we examine whether the enumeration of sexual orientation as a protected group in state HCLs is associated with reductions in the proportion of adolescents attempting suicide. We hypothesized that the enactment of HCLs that enumerate sexual orientation as a protected class would be associated with lower rates of suicide attempt among adolescents.”

Let’s see how the got their answers.

The Study: Half A Million Teens Over Thirty Years

To test their hypothesis, researchers used data collected by the National Youth Behavior Risk Survey (YRBS) from 1991-2018. This data included information on 679,663 high school students in the main experimental dataset, and information from a subset of 83,852 teens who answered questions about their sexual orientation. Once they had this data, they identified trends in suicidal behavior for teens across the entire sample set, with a focus on the subset of teens who answered questions on sexual orientation between the years 2015 and 2018.

Next, they identified states that met the following criteria:

  1. Passed hate crime laws (HCLs)
  2. Passed hate crime laws that specifically enumerate protections for members of the LGBTQI+ community
  3. Enacted hate crime laws that specifically enumerate protections for members of the LGBTQI+ community during the study period
Note: enumerated, in this context, means named. For instance, take something we’re all familiar with. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. In this example, race, color, and national origin are enumerated protections.

Finally, they cross-referenced the data on hate crime laws with the data on teen suicide and teen sexual orientation. To check their data, they applied advanced statistical analyses to the datasets to eliminate confounding factors and arrive a valid, reliable, verifiable conclusions.

Here’s what they found:

  • From 1991-2018, teen suicide rates were lower in states with enumerated HCLs than in states without enumerated HCLs.
  • Teens in states with enumerated HCLs showed a 16.1% decrease in likelihood of attempting suicide
  • States with enumerated HCLs showed a similar decrease in likelihood of suicide attempts for all age groups
  • States with HCLs that specifically enumerated LGBTQI+ rights showed the same reductions in teen suicide as states with HCLs that did not specifically enumerate LGBTQI+ rights.
  • In all states with any type of HCLs, teens who identified as bisexual or seeking showed greater reductions in suicidality than teens who identified as gay or lesbian

That data is complex. What we learn is that hate crime laws have an impact on teen behavior, and that teens in states with hate crime laws that protect specific groups by name showed a small, but significant reduction in teen suicide. A 16.2 percent reduction in likelihood corresponds to a 1.2 percent decrease in suicide prevalence. If we extend that to the national level, where 8.9 percent of teens attempted suicide in 2019, that would mean a real number – i.e. real human – decrease in suicide attempts of close to 300,000.

That’s huge.

That means that the presence of hate crime legislation – whether it identifies LGBTQI+ individuals or not – has the potential to save over a quarter million lives a year. Those are the dots we want anyone who reads this article to connect. There’s a relationship between public policy and individual behavior that’s very real. In some cases – teen suicide, for example – a public policy created to support and protect our most vulnerable citizens can reduce harm and save lives.

NOTE: IF YOU THINK YOUR TEEN IS AT IMMINENT RISK OF HARMING THEMSELVES OR SOMEONE ELSE, CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY. DO NOT WAIT. DO NOT IGNORE TALK OF SUICIDE.

Suicide and Self-Harm Hotlines

Teens who need help can call or text the following numbers:

  • 988 is the new national mental health emergency line
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7/365): 1-800-273-8255
  • The Trevor Project Phone (24/7/365): 1-866-488-7386
    • Note: The Trevor Project was originally created to support LGBTQI+ teens in crisis. However, they will help anyone who calls.
  • The Trevor Project Text (7 days/wk, 6am-am ET, 3am-10pm PT): Text START to 678678
  • The Trevor Project Chat: CLICK HERE
  • The Crisis Text Line (24/7/365): Text CONNECT to 741741
  • The Youth Yellow Pages TEEN LINE (6pm-10pm PT) 310-855-4673
  • The Youth Yellow Pages TEXT: Text TEEN to 839863

Finding Help: Resources

If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

Additional Reading

To learn more about suicide risk and teens, please read our this article in the Parenting Tips and Advice section of our website:

A Parent’s Guide to Self-Harm and Suicide Risk in Teens

In addition to that guide, please also consider reading:

These articles are filled with facts, figures, ideas, and tips than can help parents support their teens who engage in any type of suicidal behavior. They also discuss specifics about how various mental health, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorders affect the disturbing phenomenon of teen suicide.