A study from the University of British Columbia has found that low income and lower educated gay and bisexual men are at five times the risk of attempting suicide than other gay and bisexual men. The results speak to the need to acknowledge the diversity of experiences affecting people in this community, say researchers.
Worldwide, suicide is the 15th leading cause of death and seventh leading cause in Canada. That rate grows among gay and bisexual men, who are two to five times more likely to attempt suicide during their lifetime than heterosexual men, with 11 per cent of gay men and 20 per cent of bisexual men attempting suicide.
“Suicide mortality among gay and bisexual men is a public health crisis comparable to the current death toll from HIV/AIDS, but it has received considerably less attention from researchers,” say the study’s authors, researchers from UBC, Simon Fraser University and the Community-based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health in Vancouver, BC.
To help fill in the knowledge gap, the researchers looked at data from a national health survey of 8,382 men who have sex with men, focusing on 145 of those surveyed who reported having attempted suicide in the past 12 months.
The study found that among that cohort, those with an annual income less than $30,000 and without a university degree were most at risk, concluding that these men had more than five times the odds of a recent suicide attempt compared to their university-educated peers.
The authors suggest that part of the reason may be that those living in poverty without higher education may feel a greater sense of hopelessness due to the perception of having fewer employment options to address their poverty.
The study also found that bisexual men with a woman as a partner were less likely to have attempted suicide, likely due to the socially “protective shield” that having an opposite-sex partner might reduce their visibility and exposure to the psychological stress of being a minority. Researchers found that risk of suicide was comparable between gay men and bisexual men partnered with a woman but for bisexual men partnered with a man, the risk was doubled.
“The protective health effects of females on their male partners has been demonstrated in general (predominantly heterosexual) surveys,” say the authors. “however, the current study is among the first to demonstrate this protective effect on bisexual men.”
Of further note, the researchers found that whether or not the man was HIV-positive did not have a significant effect on the odds of suicide attempt, with the assumption being that advances in HIV treatment during the past decade have extended survival rates to the point where the stress of an AIDS diagnosis is not as damaging to one’s health as it may have been in the past.
The researchers say that their results speak to the diversity within the gay and bisexual community when it comes to mental health and that mental health interventions need to be responsive to these differences. “We have to make sure that messages are relevant and available to men with lower income and education levels,” says John Oliffe, UBC nursing professor and study co-author, in a press release. “Information about suicide, mental health and available resources must be specific to their needs and easy to understand.”
The study was published in the Journal of Homosexuality.