Opposite to white heterosexuals, state-sanctioned discrimination may increase suicidal tendencies among Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer community members, Rutgers Health researchers find

Discriminatory legal policies and policing that benefit white heterosexual people may be fueling suicidal ideation and behavior within Black LGBQ communities, Rutgers Health researchers have found.  

While suicide rates are decreasing among white Americans, trends for Black Americans are heading in the opposite direction, according to experts from the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This increase appears to be most pronounced among LGBQ community members, English said.

“Structural oppression and policing drive everyday discrimination, which is a strong predictor of suicide risk,” said Devin English, an assistant professor in the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Clinical Science. “This link was clear for participants in our study.”

To gauge potential associations between state racist and heterosexist legal policies, police stops and discrimination and suicidal ideation and behavior among white and Black heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer (LGBQ) community members, English and colleagues surveyed over 5,000 people in three states: New Jersey, Minnesota and Mississippi.

Sample locations were chosen for geographic, demographic and political diversity. Participants were asked about social and political perspectives, mental health, discrimination experiences, neighborhood characteristics and other psychosocial outcomes.

Using statistical analysis, the researchers examined associations between racist policies, as indicated by Black-white inequities in incarceration; heterosexist policies – such as HIV criminalization laws; whether they were stopped by the police in the past year; experiences with discrimination; and suicidal ideation (thinking about killing oneself) or behavior (such as preparing to kill oneself).

They found that for Black LGBQ participants, racist and heterosexist policies increased the likelihood of police stops, which were linked to higher rates of discrimination, suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior. For white heterosexual participants, the opposite was true: Racist and heterosexist policies were associated with decreased likelihood of police stops, and thus weaker effects on suicidal ideation and behavior.

“Both Black heterosexual and LGBQ participants living in states that had higher Black-white incarceration inequities were more likely to be stopped by the police,” English said. “This is important because every participant, regardless of race or sexual identity, reported more discrimination, suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviors if they had been stopped by the police. However, Black LGBQ participants were the most likely to be stopped.”

Because of limited longitudinal data, English said his findings leave room for interpretation. Yet a growing body of research supports the conclusions, he added.

“This is one of several recent studies to demonstrate that states and municipalities with policies that harm Black and LGBQ communities actually help white heterosexual people,” English said. “We simply cannot sit back and watch as white supremacist policies are passed by our state legislatures, at the expense of our Black and LGBQ neighbors. We need to speak up.”