Some of the benefits of legalizing same-sex marriage are obvious: namely, couples who love each other can enjoy full legal protections guaranteed to any other couple. However, a new study published Monday indicates that legalizing same-sex marriage has positive ramifications than even many supporters may not have considered. Researchers found that same-sex marriage laws are linked to fewer suicides among teens, meaning that equal marriage rights may actually prevent teenagers, particularly LGBTQ-identifying teenagers, from attempting or committing suicide.
The study, which was published in JAMA Pediatrics and was led by Julia Raifman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined data of adolescents from 1999 to 2015 from a survey that included questions about sexual orientation and suicide attempts, among many other factors.
Researchers looked at the ways self-reported suicide attempts changed before and after a given state legalized gay marriage. They found an association between same-sex marriage policies and a decrease in suicide attempts that, in the words of their report, constitutes "empirical evidence for an association between same-sex marriage policies and mental health outcomes." This association, unsurprisingly, was concentrated among students who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
"I was really becoming aware of the really large disparities that affect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender health," researcher Julia Raifman tells Bustle. "I wondered about the role of unequal rights in affecting those health outcomes."
Among other such disparities, LGB-identifying students report much higher rates of suicide attempts: according to the Trevor Project, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual-identifying peers. Suicides amongst transgender youth are even higher: according to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, nearly one in three transgender adolescents has attempted suicide.
This grim reality can seem unchangeable, which makes Raifman's and her colleagues' findings all the more significant. Even attorney Robbie Kaplan, who successfully argued against the Defense of Marriage Act in the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, called the results of the study "stunning."
Ellen Kahn, who directs the Children, Youth, and Families Program for the Human Rights Campaign, tells Bustle why she thinks that marriage laws could have such an impact. "Young people, even if you are too young to be thinking about marriage, for example, the tone and the message that comes from having marriage equality really lands," Kahn explains. "Whether you're a young gay man in rural Tennessee or a transgender youth in New York City, when the law of the land changes, then our youth across the country can feel one more ray of hope or opportunity is in front of them, one less hurdle to navigate."
For children who grow up worrying about suffering anti-LGBTQ discrimination, marriage equality may be a sign that the obstacles to an ordinary life are decreasing. "I think it's definitely important for policymakers and the public to understand that social policy can be associated with health outcomes, and in this case very a serious child health outcome ... as we think about other policies that may impact LGBT health," Raifman tells Bustle.
Even after same-sex marriage became federal law, some organizations are still fighting against it. One such group, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), pushed back against the study's conclusions.
Although NOM director of communications, Joseph Grabowski, acknowledges that "any decrease in trends of suicide rates in any population for any reason is a good thing," he also tells Bustle that he attributes the decrease in suicide attempts to social change rather than marriage policy itself.
"We think that there are a lot of X factors that are, by the study's own admission, left out, for example, social trends in the states that had same-sex marriage prior to the Obergefell [the Supreme Court case guaranteeing same-sex marriage as a Constitutional right] decision," he says. "The study's authors admit they couldn't control for social trends of wider societal acceptance of LGBT individuals. We think that's not a miscellaneous factor when you're considering the lives of teenagers and youth who are growing up and begin to identify as LGBT."
However, the way marriage equality legislation was implemented in different states can help address this concern — and Raifman and her team accounted for that.
Raifman explains that researchers compared 32 states that implemented marriage equality to 15 that did not. In states without marriage equality, she tells Bustle, adolescent suicide attempts were "unchanged over time, a really flat trend." But these trends were equally flat and unchanging in states that ultimately did legalize same-sex marriage before those policies were implemented. According to Raifman, this means that social trends of increased acceptance (if found in states about to legalize same-sex marriage) did not appear to have a measurable association with teen suicide rates, while the actual policy of legal marriage did.
Moreover, Raifman tells Bustle that researchers also found that suicide rates did not change in the years just before states implemented same-sex marriage policies. The suicide rates only changed once the actual policies had been implemented.
"It's really something that's happening at the point when these same-sex marriage policies happened," Raifman says.
As two branches of the United States government are controlled by a party whose platform explicitly repudiates equal marriage access, understanding the link between same-sex marriage policy and mental health outcomes may be more important than ever.