How Does School Connectedness Relate to Suicidal Ideation for LGB Adolescents?

A college student sits thinking in the school library.

School-Based Protective Factors Related to Suicide for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adolescents” (abstract). Kelly Whitaker, Valerie Shapiro, and John Shields. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 58, 2016.

What it’s about: Using data from the California Healthy Kids Survey in the San Francisco Unified School District, Whitaker, Shapiro, and Shields investigate how school-based protective factors such as school connectedness relate to thoughts of suicide, or suicidal ideation. This survey is “the largest state-wide survey of risk factors, protective factors, and youth development behaviors in the United States,” the authors write.

The researchers studied a subsample of the survey that consisted of 356 students who self-identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB). This subsample represented 7% of the total survey, which the authors report is consistent with estimated numbers of LGB students in other high schools. Of the sample, 10% reported that they were multiracial, 33% Asian, 39% Latino, 4% Caucasian, and 6% African American, with 46% identifying as female and 54% as male. Seventeen percent of the sample identified as transgender.

Why read it: Previous studies have found that LGB young people are approximately three times more likely to consider suicide than their heterosexual peers. While risk factors linked with thoughts of suicide have been investigated for LGB youth, research on the protective factors or characteristics that reduce the risk of suicide in LGB youth is still relatively new.

Other studies have shown that school-based programs and policies, such as having gay-straight alliances, may protect this population from suicide. Due to this finding, the authors investigated whether there is a previously theorized but not yet studied link between school connectedness and reduced risk of suicide in LGB adolescents. They aim for their study to add to the research knowledge and inform prevention interventions.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Among the LGB students in this study, the authors note that over the previous year, 31% reported having considered suicide, 27% said they experienced LGB-specific victimization, and 41% reported symptoms of depression. At the same time, 65% felt safe or very safe at school.

Whitaker et al. included elements of positive relationships with adults, school safety, and feelings of belonging at school to measure school connectedness. Students reported numbers on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree” in response to five school connectedness statements:

  1. “I feel close to people at this school.”
  2. “I am happy to be at this school.”
  3. “I feel like I am part of this school.”
  4. “The teachers at this school treat students fairly.”
  5. “I feel safe in my school.”

Regarding whether school connectedness is linked with decreases in suicidal ideation, the results of the study showed that:

  • LGB students who reported less connection to school had a higher risk of suicidal ideation.
  • For every unit increase in how highly youth rated school connectedness, the risk for suicidal ideation decreased by 41%.
  • Transgender youth were less likely to report suicidal ideation than their cisgendered (people whose gender identity matches their biological sex) LGB peers.

Whitaker et al. indicate that this new information on school connectedness can inform the development of school programs, policies, and preventative interventions for LGB youth who may be at risk for suicide. Given that this is the first study to look at school connectedness as a protective factor for LGB youth and suicide, the authors highlight the importance of further research into this component. They also suggest that school-based prevention efforts incorporate multiple aspects of connection to school, including fostering caring relationships with adults and school safety.

Additional references: Look for more articles about school and LGBTQ youth or suicide prevention in our digital library.

Read more about connectedness as a key to preventing suicide among LGBTQ youth.

Learn how to create a support group for LGBTQ youth.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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