Having gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and explicit anti-homophobia policies in schools may reduce the chances of suicidal thoughts and attempts in both queer and straight students, says a study released Jan 20 by researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
The study, led by UBC School of Nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc, found chances of harm were lower if both strategies were enacted or in place for three years or more.
“We know that LGBTQ students are at higher risk for suicide, in part because they are more often targeted for bullying and discrimination,” Saewyc says in a news release. “But heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it’s better for students’ mental health, no matter what their orientation.”
According to Statistics Canada, 458 young Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24 committed suicide in 2008.
National queer advocacy group Egale has said suicide is the second leading cause of death among Canadian youth, and studies have found suicide rates among gay youth are four times higher than their non-queer peers.
Published in the International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, UBC’s new work drew on data from the British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey to test links between school policies and programs, discrimination because of perceived sexual orientation, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
The research used data from the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society for grades 8 through 12, which involved 21,708 students, the release says.
Participating school districts represented 92 percent of enrolled students across BC. One in five students attended school in districts with anti-homophobia policies and one in three attended schools with GSAs. Sixty percent of students were in schools with neither.
Among the report’s key findings:
• In schools with gay-straight alliances implemented three or more years ago, the odds of homophobic discrimination and suicidal thoughts were reduced by more than half among lesbian, gay, bisexual boys and girls compared to schools with no GSA. There were also significantly lower odds of sexual orientation-based discrimination for heterosexual boys and girls, and heterosexual boys were half as likely to attempt suicide as those in schools without GSAs.
• In schools where anti-homophobia policies have been in place for more than three years, the odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts for gay and bisexual boys were more than 70 percent lower, suicide attempts among lesbian and bisexual girls were two-thirds lower, and heterosexual boys had 27 percent lower odds of suicidal thoughts than heterosexual boys in schools without such policies.
Cellouin Eguia restarted and led Burnaby's Byrne Creek Secondary School’s GSA when he was in high school. Now 19, he thinks the UBC study shows school administrators there are definite benefits to GSAs and policies.
"It's a call to action," he says. "This is obviously something that works."
Eguia says school administrators are being irresponsible if they ignore the result of the study and don't allow GSAs or don’t encourage districts to implement anti-homophobia policies.
He says GSAs give LGBT youth a sense of community, support and belonging that may otherwise be absent in their lives.
Establishing a GSA shouldn't just be left to a student pushy enough to make it happen, often to their own detriment, he adds.
"What this study should show is schools can't really afford to wait for a student like that," he says. "You do get so much crap for putting the idea forward first."
BC Teachers' Association president Jim Iker says the study shows that ongoing outreach to queer youth is working but is still not enough.
He says all school districts should have anti-homophobia policies and encourage the formation of GSAs.
"Once districts have anti-homophobia policies, students would feel safer in setting up GSAs," Iker predicts.
Iker says the provincial Ministry of Education should be looking at the study as evidence that policies and GSAs have a positive impact on all students.