LGBTQ Military Kids Attempted Suicide at Much Higher Rate Than Their Civilian Peers, New Research Finds

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Starting line of a LGBTQ+ color run at Misawa Air Base, Japan.
Team Misawa members stand at the starting line of a LGBTQ+ color run at Misawa Air Base, Japan, June 11, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Leon Redfern)

Military dependents who identify as LGBTQ have higher rates of attempted suicide as well as more anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts compared to those who don't have a parent serving, according to new research.

In a report released Wednesday by The Trevor Project, a non-profit that provides crisis support to LGBTQ young people, 23% of the roughly 1,700 respondents to a survey said they had attempted suicide in the previous year, compared with 14% of non-military LGBTQ youth under age 24.

The report, which derived its results from the non-profit’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, offers "crucial insights into the unique mental health challenges faced by LGBTQ youth" who have military parents, according to Jonah DeChants, a research scientist for The Trevor Project.

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"These data indicate a strong need for mental health care providers to prioritize competent services that demonstrate an understanding of both these young people's LGBTQ identities, and their belonging to military families," DeChants said in a statement released with the report.

The survey of nearly 35,000 youth was conducted in late 2020 via an online platform. Of those, 5% reported they had a parent who served in the military. When broken down by race and ethnicity, LGBTQ youth who were Black, Native American or multiracial, were more likely to have a parent serving, with 8%-9% saying they had at least one parent in the military.

The military youth respondents overall reported higher anxiety symptoms and suicidal thoughts, while those under age 18 reported significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation compared with their civilian peers and also compared with older military dependents ages 18-24.

Results of the overall survey found that LGBTQ youth in America are under significant stress. The report says 42% of those surveyed had seriously considered acsuicide in the previous year, while 70% described their mental health as "poor" most of the time or always during that year, the first of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike their civilian counterparts, military youth face additional stressors such as frequent moves, concern for the safety of their military parents or separation from their military loved ones.

The limited research on the mental health of these LGBTQ military dependents prompted The Trevor Project to delve further into its survey results to understand that community's needs, according to employee of the non-profit.

"This group faces significantly higher suicide risk compared to their peers," DeChants said. "Future research is needed to better consider the diversity of experiences that LGBTQ youth with military parents represent -- such as whether they have one or multiple military parents, if their families live on a base, and whether or not their parents have deployed."

The analysis found that having family support can mean a world of difference, with military youth who reported having support having nearly 40% lower odds of anxiety and 46% lower odds of a suicide attempt. The brief did not define “family support,” however.

And according to Troy Stevenson, The Trevor Project's senior campaign manager for advocacy and government affairs, community support is beneficial as well.

Cities and towns that actively support LGBTQ rights report significantly lower rates of suicide attempts, Stevenson told attendees at the Military Childhood Education Coalition Global Summit in Washington, D.C. last month.

"LGBTQ youth who live in supportive communities or who had access to LGBTQ-affirming and/or high social support for families and friends reported significantly lower rates for attempting suicide in just the past few years ... the numbers go down exponentially," Stevenson said.

And having even one supportive adult in their life can reduce suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth by 40%.

"Talk about saving a life," Stevenson said during the presentation, held for military educators, parents and students.

The new report comes as the nation grapples with questions over gender identity, equality and rights in schools and sports. Stevenson said there are more than 300 pieces of legislation proposed in states that address gender issues among youth, including transgender persons' participation in sports, school activities and public facilities.

The report authors noted that while there were shortfalls in the research, including that it did not discern active-duty from reserve families or include details regarding parents' deployment status or living circumstances, the findings had implications for family members and medical professionals who serve the military community.

The authors recommended that military and Tricare providers ensure that their professionals are trained in LGBTQ issues, and those who treat any child be cognizant of the impact of military service on families.

They also noted that military leadership should do more to support LGBTQ families, based on findings of a 2021 survey that noted 62% of military families said that existing support resources did not meet the needs of their LGBTQ families.

"The military itself, and organizations dedicated to supporting the mental health of service members and their families -- especially in the area of suicide prevention -- should actively take into account the needs of LGBTQ people and create welcoming and affirming spaces for families with LGBTQ members," the report noted.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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