Susan De Luca
Susan De Luca, PhD

Religious beliefs are supposed to protect people from suicidal thoughts and behaviors. However, a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that the opposite may be happening for young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or are unsure of their sexual orientation. The study was conducted by a national team of researchers that includes Susan De Luca, an assistant professor at the Steve Hicks of School of Social Work.

Data were gathered from over 21,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 30 from across the United States. The students indicated the importance of their religious beliefs, which the researchers coded into three categories of not important, moderately important, and very important.  As typically found in previous research studies, stronger religious beliefs were associated with lower frequencies of suicidal thoughts and behaviors – but only for heterosexual people. For sexual minorities, the opposite was found: stronger religious beliefs did not protect against suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In fact, for some sexual minorities, stronger religious beliefs were correlated with more suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

“This was something we had suspected might be going on,” said Megan Lytle, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center. “For many sexual minority people, they don’t always find support from the religions they were born into or they feel in conflict with a religion that does not affirm who they are. This can create distress and lack of connection. We hear a lot of stories about this sort of thing, but this was one of the first times we could look at the question using a large data set.”

Studies about this topic are few because surveys rarely ask both about sexual orientation and about suicidal thoughts and behaviors. However, a study conducted in 2014 among a sample of 388 sexual minority adults in New York City found that sexual minority people who sought religious-based treatment for mental health had higher frequency of attempting suicide.

“Religious communities are key partners in suicide prevention, and we know that sexual minority communities have higher risks of suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” De Luca said. “It is important that we can take this information to learn how better to engage stakeholders to improve help-seeking for individuals in distress.”

Read coverage of the study in the Huffington Post.