Vermont LGBT youth four times more likely to attempt suicide, survey shows

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A new survey found that high school-age lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in Vermont are over four times more likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender and straight peers.

The 2017 Youth Risk Behavior survey released by the Department of Health found that 33 percent of LGBT high school students reported having planned suicide, while 18 percent reported attempting suicide.

That’s compared to 8 percent of cisgender and straight students who reported planning suicide, and 4 percent who reported attempting suicide.

LGBT youth are also three times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe. Ten percent said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, according to the biannual survey, which polls about three quarters of Vermont’s high schoolers.

“The Health Department is committed to working with our partner to confront and rectify these inequities so that everyone in Vermont has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in a press release Wednesday.

The Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey surveys 34,000 in middle school and high school were across 122 schools representing 76 percent of all Vermont High schoolers and 83 percent of Vermont middle schoolers.

It provides the most comprehensive data on LGBT youth experience in Vermont and the numbers have remained relatively consistent in 2013 and 2015, said Dana Kaplan, executive director of Outright Vermont, a queer and trans youth service organization based in Burlington.

“I think the study shows there is a real sense of loneliness and isolation…and is a product of systemic oppression,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan said bringing these statistics down significantly would require changes to curriculum in school, acceptance at home and laws that protect youth, such as the recently passed bathroom bill, which will mandate all single-use bathrooms be gender-free come July 1.

Kaplan also said that having a strong and informed adult network is essential to supporting LGBT youth. “As adults, it’s our responsibility to be able to recognize the world is changing,” Kaplan said.

There are a number of resources — including caregiver support groups at Outright Vermont in Burlington, the Trans Parent Group and online resources such as the Family Acceptance Project that enable adults to dive deeper into how to support LGBT youth.

Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan agreed the rate of suicide among LGBT youth is a systemic issue and said the officials are looking at ways to address it.

“There are social justice issues at the root of this issue…it’s a bigger issue, a societal issue,” Dolan said.

She said the department is figuring out how to bring a social justice lens to public health and highlighted the Vermont Suicide Prevention Center’s suicide prevention program, UMatter, as a program aimed at addressing groups specifically susceptible to suicide.

“It is unacceptable and we need to do something differently,” Dolan said.

LGBT youth are not the only minority youth group that had high rates of planned or attempted suicides, according to the survey, which found students of color in Vermont more susceptible to than their white counterparts.

Kaplan said that the two groups intersect, and that protective policies and changes to curriculum are needed for these groups to feel seen and supported.

Lawmakers highlighted curriculum change and protective measures as a key way to address systemic discrimination this binneum.

Rep. Kiah Morris introduced [H.794] this session to infuse Vermont curriculum with ethnic studies and more accurate representation of society. Rep. Selene Colburn introduced the so-called “bathroom bill,” H.333, last session. It was signed by Gov. Phil Scott and will go into effect July 1.

In addition to mental health, the survey also looked at substance use among middle and high school students. Here are some of the findings:

• Middle schoolers are more likely to use e-cigarettes or other electronic vapor products, from 7 percent in 2015 to 9 percent in 2017.
• High Schoolers are more likely to drink alcohol, from 56 percent in 2015 to 58 percent in 2016.
• High Schoolers are more likely to use marijuana, from 22 percent to 24 percent.
• High Schoolers are less likely to smoke cigarettes, from 11 percent in 2015 to 9 percent in 2017.

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