Have 1 in 4 LGBT persons attempted suicide?

CLAIM: Within the LGBT community, 25% have attempted suicide.

CONCLUSION: Accurate result in line with other surveys with LGBT respondents in the UK and Ireland. The Rainbow Project survey figure of 4% of LGBT people attempting suicide in the prior year is also consistent with surveys by other organisations.

Rainbow colours at Ards Town Hall?

On 26 September 2018, the meeting of Ards and North Down Borough Council discussed a motion by Councillor Andrew Muir (Alliance Party) that affirmed lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in the Borough as “valued as equal citizens” and proposed the “lighting of Ards Town Hall in rainbow colours to coincide with Pride Day each year on the first Saturday of August”. An amendment by Alderman Alan Graham (DUP) that removed the lighting phrase above was adopted by the council.

In the debate that preceded the vote on the amendment, Councilor Gavin Walker (Alliance Party), who seconded Muir’s motion, made the claim that “within the LGBT community … 25% have actually attempted to commit suicide”.

Suicide attempts

According to the report on suicide prevention from the World Health Organisation, there are two ways of measuring suicide attempts. One way is to consult records of medical treatment for self-injury from emergency and outpatient departments of hospitals; however a number of reasons are given why this is an unreliable method. Alternatively, suicide attempts can be measured through self-reported questions about suicidal behaviour from surveys.

Suicide attempts within the LGBT community

Survey research on sexual orientation and suicidal behaviour, comparing the odds of suicide attempts by LGBT persons with heterosexuals reveals “a two-fold excess in suicide attempts in lesbian, gay and bisexual people”, with an odds ratio of 2.47 (2008). A more recent systematic review (2015) confirms that “nearly all study results (98%) indicated elevated attempted suicide rates in general or across SM [sexual minority] subgroups”.

Concerning adolescents and young adults, a meta-analysis (2017) found that “sexual orientation was significantly associated with suicide attempts”, with an odds ratio of 2.26.

Studies indicate that the higher odds in suicidal attempts are also true for transgender people compared to cisgender (i.e. you identify with gender assigned at birth) people (2016).

All reviewed studies were conducted in countries from North America, Europe and Australasia.

The situation in Northern Ireland

Walker told FactCheckNI that he was referring to the 2013 “Through Our Minds” report by the Rainbow Project, an organisation that works to improve the health of LGBT people in Northern Ireland. It presents data on the mental health of LGBT people in Northern Ireland, “collected via an online and paper questionnaire which received 571 responses”. All age groups and demographic populations were surveyed.

Asked “Have you ever attempted suicide?”, 25.7% responded that they “had at least one attempt at suicide”. However, by disseminating the questionnaire through LGBT centres and online networks, versus a general population survey, the results are possibly biased.

Moreover, as the WHO report on suicide noted, self-reporting lifetime rates of suicide attempts is limited in regards to assessing current suicide risks and makes recall biases in remembering long-distance events possible. The WHO report, therefore, suggests measuring “the occurrence of suicide attempts (that result in some level of physical injury) in the prior year”.

If we apply this recommendation, we see that in Rainbow Project’s research, 6.17% attempted suicide in the prior year (24% of the people who had attempted suicide at least once).

In 2017, the Youth Council for Northern Ireland published a research report on the mental health of LGBT persons, called “Still Shouting”. Although their survey focused on young LGBT people, aged from 13 to 25, their results are in line with the Rainbow Project’s report: 25% of the 270 respondents reported having attempted suicide. There is no information available of suicide attempts in the past 12 months.

Comparisons

Northern Ireland: General population

To compare suicide attempts in the general population of Northern Ireland, we also have to rely on self-report survey questions. A 2014 study found that 174 of the 4340 respondents (4%) responded that they attempted suicide at least one time in their life.

Great Britain: General population

Based on a 2000 survey by the Office for National Statistics in Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland), a report describes that 4.4% adults attempted suicide at least once in their life and 0.5% in the year prior to the survey.

Great Britain: LGBT population

Stonewall, a British charity campaigning for LGBT people, undertook two separate surveys on the health of lesbian and bisexual women (2008) and of gay and bisexual men (2011) in Great Britain. They found that 5% of lesbian and bisexual women, 3% of gay men, and 5% of bisexual men reported having attempted suicide in the prior year.

Ireland: Young people population

A national study of the mental health of young people in Ireland (2012), carried out by the UCD School of Psychology, reveals that 7% of the young respondents attempted suicide, of whom 24% in the prior year.

Ireland: LGBT population

The LGBTIreland Report (2016), published by BeLonG To, based on survey data of 2,264 LGBT people in the Republic of Ireland, found 21.4% having ever attempted suicide and 5.63% in the prior year.

Summary

The above cited figures are summarised by territory in the following table, showing suicide attempts ever as well as in the prior year:

General population (suicide attempt ever) LGBT population (suicide attempt ever) General population (suicide attempt past year) LGBT (suicide attempt past year)
Northern Ireland 4% 25.7% ? 6.17%
Great Britain 4.4% ? 0.5% 4.02%*
Ireland 7%** 21.4% 1.68%** 5.63%

*Excluding transgender people, recalculated on the basis of the two studies (2008; 2011) taken together
**Aged 17-25

The table shows that LGBT people have a higher rate of attempted suicide, ever and for the prior year, compared with the general population.

The figures from the Rainbow Project survey are in line with other surveys in Great Britain and Ireland.

Our investigation revealed that more research may be required to learn more about the level of suicide ever attempted for LGBT people in Great Britain, as well as the level of attempted suicide in the general population of Northern Ireland.

Image: The Town Hall, Newtownards, by Rossographer CC BY-SA http://geograph.org.uk/p/1781102