from Clinical/Therapeutic Issues
Neil Whitehead, Lower Hutt, New Zealand
A new article has emerged, significantly adding to the literature on suicides among homosexual men (Mathy, Cochran, Olsen, & Mays, 2009). It has been well known for a decade that suicide is attempted much more frequently in the homosexual community than in the heterosexual community. On average, suicide is approximately three times more likely among homosexuals than heterosexuals. However, some authors were unable to find evidence that completed suicides were more common (Hendin, 1995). The current Netherlands data for the first time shows that at least among officially partnered homosexual men, completed suicides are more common than among heterosexual men.
The study was done using the statistical databases on deaths in the Netherlands, which, of course, lists suicide as one of the causes. Available also were the Registered Domestic Partnerships for gay men and lesbian women. Previous studies of gay suicide had the possible flaw that the homosexual group under study was not really representative of other homosexuals in the country; this study has a possibly related flaw, that those who register for Domestic Partnerships are not typical of the homosexual population in other ways.
One can imagine, for example, that if one partner had HIV, perhaps 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
The basic finding is that gay men in partnerships were eight times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual men. In contrast, although lesbian women in partnerships were 65% more likely to commit suicide, this was not statistically significant. This data for completed suicides is significant 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 eight times more likely is remarkably high, higher than any known figures in the literature for attempted suicides for any group of homosexual men.
Of course the question will be asked if there is something in the partnership structure itself which is bitterly disappointing. (It is already known that divorce rates for homosexual partnerships are higher than for heterosexual partnerships (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 that sex is less important and that the reverse applies for gay men. Yet, it is not clear that 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.
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