Commentary

Why state and school policies matter


 

Recently North Carolina proposed a bill (House Bill 780) that will ban same-sex marriage in the state, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that no states can ban same-sex marriage because doing so violates the 14th Amendment. Although many mainly will argue that H.B. 780 is unconstitutional, this bill also can be detrimental to the health of lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth.

In March 2017, JAMA Pediatrics published a study on the association between same-sex marriage laws and the rates of suicide attempts.1 Using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, they analyzed the relationship between state policies that permitted same-sex marriage and self-report of suicide attempts within the last 12 months. Thirty percent of LGB youth (13% of the survey population) reported a suicide attempt in the past year prior to any state policies that permitted same-sex marriage, compared with about 9% of the general population. After states implemented pro–same-sex marriage policies, LGB youth suicide attempts dropped to about 26% – a 14% relative decline. This was not limited to LGB youth. The general youth suicide rates declined from 8.6% to 8% – a 7% relative decline. Although the change in suicide attempts was small, the authors determined that the likelihood it occurred by chance was very slim, and concluded that policies enabling same-sex marriage may be associated with an improvement in population health, especially for LGB youth.

Dr. Gerald Montano

This was not the first study examining the relationship between policies and the health of LGB youth. Mark Hatzenbuehler, PhD, of Columbia University, New York, and his associates have published multiple studies on this topic. Four years earlier, Hatzenbuehler et al. published a study on the relationship between antibullying policies and suicide among LGB youth. Using data from the Oregon Healthy Teen survey (2006-2008), he found that LGB youth who live in counties where there are fewer districts with antibullying policies are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide, compared with LGB youth who live in counties where more districts had antibullying policies. Furthermore, the type of antibullying policy mattered. If a district’s antibullying policy did not prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation, then it had no impact on the suicide attempt rates of LGB youth in that area.2 Similar results were found when the relationship between anti–homophobic bullying policies and LGB suicide attempts was examined in the larger Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.3

State and local policies also influence other health outcomes among LGB youth. Hatzenbuehler et al. did another study that examined community-level determinants of tobacco use among LGB youth. Again using the data from the Oregon Healthy Teen Survey, they found that LGB youth living in communities that were more supportive of LGB youth (i.e., communities with a high proportion of same-sex couples living in the area, a high proportion of gay-straight alliances at schools, and LGB-specific antibullying policies) were less likely to smoke cigarettes, compared with LGB youth living in communities that were less supportive.4 A similar study in Canada by Konishi et al. found that schools with gay-straight alliances and anti–homophobic bullying policies were less likely to have LGB youth engaging in risky alcohol or illicit drug use.5

Why do these policies matter? A common theme among these policies is that they can either cause or alleviate stress for LGB youth. States that restrict same-sex marriages or schools that do not have any gay-straight alliances may signal to LGB youth that they are not valued or welcomed, or at the very worse, are despised. This creates a hostile and stressful environment for LGB youth, which raises the risk for mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, which in turn, raises the risk for substance use and suicide.6 Conversely, the presence of a gay-straight alliance at school or a state that allows same-sex marriage may indicate to LGB youth that they are welcomed, if not just tolerated, and may alleviate this risk. Furthermore, antibullying policies seem to reduce the stress associated with bullying among LGB youth because it may serve as a deterrent to bullying based on sexual orientation. Although passing pro-LGB policies will not solve all the health problems among LGB youth, these policies certainly have an impact.

There might be trepidation among some pediatricians about being vocal on a politically charged policy proposal such as H.B. 780. However, suicide and substance use are major concerns for all physicians – especially pediatricians. Policy makers considering passing laws that can affect their LGB constituents should read these studies to see what kind of influence these proposals can have on the health and well-being of LGB youth. Moreover, health care providers should use their expertise, influence, and standing in their community to support policies that encourage protection for LGB youth and oppose policies that can harm LGB youth. These leaders are responsible for ensuring the health of the people they serve.

Dr. Montano is clinical instructor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh and an adolescent medicine physician at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

References

1. JAMA Pediatr. 2017. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.4529.

2. J Adolesc Health. 2013:S21-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.08.010.

3. Am J Public Health. 2014. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301508.

4. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2011. doi: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.64.

5. Prev Med. 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2013.06.031.

6. Psychol Bull. 2003. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.5.674.

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