SALT LAKE CITY — LGBT youth are especially prone to suicide risk because of alienation, self-doubt and a host of other factors, and need as much help as possible from family support systems to overcome those risks, presenters said Tuesday at a suicide prevention conference.
The all-day conference at The Little America Hotel, aimed at promoting its motto of "Stronger Communities," featured presentations from educators, advocates and researchers who presented findings suggesting the family unit is an overlooked resource in suicide prevention.
A lack of support for families who are trying to help their lesbian, gay or transgender child is one of several reasons why "we see so many LGBT youth end up out of homes," said Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker specializing in LGBT mental health who oversees the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
"Not only have families been systematically excluded, but I’ve also learned the price we’ve paid for excluding families when it comes to supporting their children," Ryan said.
Those consequences include significantly greater risk for depression, abuse of illegal drugs, suicide and isolation, both during adolescence and later in life, she said. But many social services automatically disqualify families as a possible net positive in the life of an LGBT teen, particularly if that family has not responded in ideal ways, Ryan said.
Many parents who make LGBT youth feel defective, unimportant or embarrassing, she said, aren't intending to do so, but are sincerely trying to help their child, but in some misguided ways. Those parents should not be excluded from the discussion about how to help LGBT youth avoid the risk factors that data show they are more prone to face, according to Ryan.
"We need to see every family as a potential ally even if they’re stuggling," she said. "Imagine — not only would that totally deconstruct that child's sense of hopelessness and helplessness, but it would also help the family on their journey (to understanding)."
Ryan asked families who are struggling to understand their child's sexual orientation or gender identity to keep trying.
"Even if you disagree, even if you don’t understand, if you’re struggling, (you can be a support) because you love your child," she said.
Teenagers whose families exhibit acceptance behaviors, rather than rejection behaviors, Ryan said, are six times less likely to experience depression and eight times less likely to attempt suicide at some point in their life.
Speakers at the conference, which was also sponsored by the Utah Department of Huan Services and Utah Department of Health, took questions and comments from among the more than 100 attendees.
Dannette Moyier, of Price, told Ryan she was grateful for the research because it gives hope to parents like hers who may initially struggle to provide the best situation for their LGBTQ child.
"I want people to see that that you don’t have to look back and feel so guilty (for early mistakes)," she said. "That helps people like me who struggled making some bad decisions early on."
Another presenter, Dr. John Blocnich, a scientist studying health care for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, focused his remarks on the need for overcoming logistical hurdles to greatly improve collection of mortality data pertaining to the LGBTQ community.
He said this is because attempted suicide, suicide ideation and depression are generally quite a bit easier to measure than suicides that are actually carried out. The gap in knowledge leaves researchers without critical information about the rates of completed suicides among LGBT communities compared to the general population, Blocnich said.
In the case of transgender Americans alone, he said, this means that a critical piece of data is missing for a population roughly equivalent to the Salt Lake metropolitan area, he said.
"LGBT people deserve a seat at this table, they deserve representation," he said of data collecting regarding suicides in the United States.