Lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGB) students are often targeted for bullying and discrimination at school, and these victimization experiences may increase their health risks. Schools are responsible for providing safe and supportive environments for all students. How can schools help to create such spaces?
Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) are student-led clubs that aim to create a safer place for all students regardless of their sexual orientation. Anti-homophobic bullying policies and GSAs may help to reduce homophobia in schools and improve students’ mental health.
We analyzed data from the 2008 British Columbia Adolescent Health Survey to examine the association between school policies and GSAs, discrimination due to perceived sexual orientation, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
LGB students were more likely than heterosexual students to have experienced homophobic discrimination, seriously considered attempting suicide, and attempted suicide in the past 12 months prior to the survey. Although the rate was low, some heterosexual students were discriminated against because they were perceived as gay or lesbian.
LGB students in schools having GSAs were half as likely to experience discrimination as LGB students in schools without GSAs. Likewise, the odds of suicide attempts were reduced by half among LGB students in schools with anti-homophobic bullying policies, compared to their peers in schools without such policies.
GSAs and anti-homophobia policies may be more effective when schools have both, or where GSAs and policies have been in place for a longer time.
- LGB students in schools with both strategies were less likely than those in schools with neither to report discrimination.
- Having longer-established GSAs (in place for at least three years) was associated with less than half the odds of discrimination and suicidal thoughts among LGB students, compared to their peers in schools with no GSAs.
- Heterosexual boys in schools with longer-established GSAs had half the odds of suicide attempts as those in schools without GSAs.
- Heterosexual boys in schools with longer-established policies were at 28% lower odds of suicidal thoughts than those in schools without such policies.
Implications for practice
Both GSAs and anti-homophobic bullying policies appear to be important interventions in schools for protecting LGB youth from discrimination and suicide. They also appear to have some benefits for heterosexual students, particularly those who might be perceived to be gay or lesbian.
Given that youth exposed to bullying and discrimination are also at risk for health-compromising behaviours, such as risky sexual practice and substance abuse, those school-based interventions may also help reduce other health risks.
It takes time for school-wide interventions to help change school climates. We have no time to lose.
For further information
Please contact Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc (UBC School of Nursing).
Saewyc, E. M., Konishi, C., Rose, H. A., & Homma, Y. (2014). School-based strategies to reduce suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and discrimination among sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents in western Canada. International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies,1, 89–112. http://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ijcyfs/article/view/12856
The Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre, UBC School of Nursing is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Thanks to McCreary Centre Society for providing access to the BC Adolescent Health Survey.