NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The suicide of a 16-year-old who was cyberbullied over sexually explicit messages he exchanged with another boy shows acceptance - including legal support - is key to improving mental health, LGBT+ advocates said on World Mental Health Day on Thursday.
U.S. teenager Channing Smith killed himself on the night of Sept. 22 after being “humiliated” by screenshots of his messages which were posted on social media by fellow students, his brother Joshua Smith told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“He couldn’t face going to school,” Smith’s brother said.
“The internet, cell phones, social media ... it’s the weapon of choice that they’re using today ... If he had had sex with a girl and had that posted, he’d probably have been a hero to his classmates.”
Attempted suicide rates are almost five times higher among lesbian, gay and bisexual students - at 29% in the last 12 months - than heterosexual students - at 6%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Donald Trump, a Republican with strong support among evangelical Christians, has taken aim at LGBT+ rights, barring many transgender people from the military and revoking guidance letting trans students use bathrooms of their choice.
The Trevor Project, which works to prevent suicide among LGBT+ youth, said the calls to its crisis services more than doubled after Trump tweeted in 2017 that he wanted to ban trans people from the military.
Calls also nearly doubled in 24 hours after a 2018 report that the Trump administration wanted to define gender based on sex at birth, which would remove protections for trans people under civil rights laws promoted by President Barack Obama.
“Turning off the hate is important,” said Sam Brinton, 31, who once called a suicide hotline run by The Trevor Project and now leads its advocacy work.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday started hearing three cases on whether LGBT+ people are covered by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids sex or race workplace discrimination.
The Trump administration has said that the law does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity but the workers - two gay and one transgender - who were fired by their employers have claimed unlawful discrimination based on their sex.
Brinton confessed feelings for a boy at the age of 11 and underwent two years of so-called “conversion therapy,” which aims to stop people being gay, bisexual or transgender.
“It was a really horrific experience where they tried to change my sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Brinton.
“I felt lost, I felt rejected and didn’t know where to go. I would attempt suicide multiple times.”
According to a survey by The Trevor Project, which runs a hotline, text and online chat services and a safe social network, 42% of LGBT+ youth who underwent conversion therapy said they attempted suicide in the last year.
Eighteen states have banned conversion therapy for minors with legislation pending in 21 more, according to Born Perfect, an advocacy group that wants to ban the practice.
Last month, New York City started to repeal its ban in what officials said aimed to avert a legal challenge from a Christian group that could put LGBT+ rights at risk nationwide if it reached an increasingly conservative Supreme Court.
While researchers and advocates emphasize that complex factors lead to an LGBT+ young person trying to kill themselves, they stress the importance of acceptance.
“The greatest risk factor for LGBTQ youth is non-acceptance,” said Jack Turban, a psychiatrist and LGBT+ youth mental health researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Turban cited examples of “rejection by family, rejection by peers, rejection by doctors through conversion therapy or even rejection by society through anti-LGBTQ legislation”.
All 50 U.S. states have anti-bullying laws, but states where those laws explicitly protect LGBT+ teens have fewer youth suicide attempts, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The Williams Institute think-tank found.
Overall suicide attempts by high school students dropped 7% in states with legal same-sex marriage, a 2017 study by Harvard University found, and 14% among students who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003, before the Supreme Court made it national policy in 2015.
“We are complex human beings,” said Brinton.
“The best thing that we can do is to create a safe space, a safe environment, where that person can learn about themselves, and we can support that learning.”
Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Chris Michaud and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org