Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Equal Rights Save Lives!

Mental health, particularly the mental health of teenagers, whose brains are still developing, is a very serious issue. With thousands of people attempting or committing suicide every year, health professionals are scrambling to find ways to prevent these deaths - all tragic results of our fundamental drive to live giving out. Despite the insistence of the pharmaceutical industry, true mental health isn't found in a packet of pills, and so often all one needs is freedom and respect.

Laws on same-sex relationships worldwide. Source: Silje.
Of course, this is just as true for lesbian, gay and bisexual people as it is for those born heterosexual. Having your freedoms restricted, anywhere from being unable to legally marry to feigning heterosexuality so you can avoid being killed, takes a toll on your mental health, and so does being valued less by society. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 in the USA, with a 2015 study showing that 6% of "straight" students had attempted suicide in the last year. For lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students, the figure was 29%. The rapid development of adult capabilities, with your life changing by the year or even month, while still legally being a child, is stressful and disempowering enough. Having less power over your life because of the way you were born, and always will be, is just too much. Suicide not only causes decades of life to be lost, but also reflects tremendous suffering leading up to it, and has damaging effects on the mental health of communities.

On the other hand, a study just published this year has found that legalisation of same-sex marriage is associated with a drop in suicide attempts among high school students. At first, the states studied showed a suicide attempt rate of 8.6% for straight students, and 28.5% for LGB students. However, subsequent equal marriage rights was linked with a 0.6-percentage point decrease in attempts, which is a 7% relative reduction. Among LGB students, it was 4 percentage points and a 14% relative reduction, as they experienced most of the benefit. This persisted for at least two years after legalisation, meaning that any backlash against LGB rights did not result in a net loss to mental health. It is also possible that some of the benefits were indeed overshadowed by backlash against LGB rights, for example teenagers who otherwise would have seen their mental health improve still worsening because of their families' reactions. Why is the "ball and chain" (a silly term for marriage) so important? Even if you don't want to marry, the right to do so shows that your sexuality is respected and valued. If you do, whether or not you want to live together, your partner becomes family, giving you rights that you otherwise would not have. It is theorised that equal rights also drive social change, allowing people freedom to be themselves. Ellen Khan of the Human Rights Campaign also says: "When LGBTQ young people don’t feel safe, protected, or valued in their own community, when they don’t feel they can be fully out and authentic – that adds an emotional burden to bear”.

Today, more than 20 countries around the world allow same-sex marriage, with many others allowing civil unions, recognition of foreign marriages and unregistered cohabitation, at least in some of their regions. With the rights of sexual minorities on an upward trend, it's great to know that this is improving health and longevity too.

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