N.E.Whitehead, New Zealand, January 2011
A paper has recently appeared which is a significant addition to the literature on suicides among people who are same-sex attracted (Mathy, Cochran, Olsen, & Mays, 2011).
It has been well known for a decade that suicide is attempted much more frequently in the SSA community than in the heterosexual community - a rule of thumb is about 3x more likely. However some authors could not find evidence that completed suicides were more common (Hendin, 1995). The current Danish data for the first time shows that at least among officially partnered SSA men, completed suicides are more common than among married heterosexual males.
The study was able to use the statistical databases on deaths in Denmark, which, of course, give suicide as one of the causes. Available also were the Registered Domestic Partnerships for gays and lesbians. Previous studies of gay suicide had the possible flaw that the SSA group under study was not really representative of other gays in the country; this study has a possibly related flaw, that those who register for Domestic Partnerships are not typical of the SSA population in other ways. One can imagine for example that one partner had HIV, the partnership was formed to formalize the few years left – and after one partner died, the other committed suicide. There is no information about this. However the authors explore well the inevitable limitations in their findings.
Eight times more likely to commit suicide
However, the basic finding is that gay men in partnerships were 8 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual men. In contrast, although gay women in partnerships were 65% more likely to commit suicide, this was not statistically significant.
These are good data for completed suicides and rare. For the first time there is rather solid data that completed suicides – not just attempted suicides - are higher among partnered gay men than among heterosexual men (most of whom are partnered.) The authors of the paper comment that this factor of 8 is remarkably high, and higher than any known figures in the literature for attempted suicides for any group of SSA men. Of course the question will be asked if there something in the partnership structure itself which is bitterly disappointing? (It is already known that divorce rates for SSA partnerships are higher than for heterosexuals (Andersson et al. 2006; Balsam et al. 2008)). However there is no evidence for this, rather some evidence against it, because the result for women in partnerships is not significantly higher than normal. If partnership itself were a factor, one would imagine the women’s data would also be very much higher.
So there appears to be something of a gender difference here. If the stereotypes are valid at all, it might be that lesbians are more interested in relationship and sex is less important and the reverse for gays, but it is not clear this would lead to increased suicides. It is rather more clear for gay males that institutional partnerships are not the protection against suicide that might be expected, and that arguments for partnership privileges on the grounds of reducing harm, must be examined very carefully.
Mathy, R. M., Cochran, S. D., Olsen, J., & Mays, V. M. (2011). The association between relationship markers of sexual orientation and suicide: Denmark, 1990-2001. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 46(2), 111-117
Andersson, G., Noack, T., Seierstad, A. and Weedon-Fekjaer, H. (2006) The demographics of same-sex marriages in Norway and Sweden. Demography 43, 79-98.
Balsam, K.F., Beauchaine, T.P., Rothblum, E.D. and Solomon, S.E. (2008) Three-Year Follow-Up of Same-Sex Couples Who Had Civil Unions in Vermont, Same-Sex Couples Not in Civil Unions, and Heterosexual Married Couples. Developmental Psychology 44, 102–116
Hendin, H. (1995) Suicide and homosexuality. In: Suicide in America, pp. 129-146. New York: W.W.Norton Mathy, R.M., Cochran, S.D., Olsen, J. and Mays, V.M. (2009) The association between relationship markers of sexual orientation and suicide: Denmark, 1990-2001. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology