In 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges held that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. Obergefell provides a date in which same-sex married couples residing in states that had not previously allowed same-sex marriage may now use as an applicable official date of marriage. Post-Obergefell, all states must grant same-sex marriages and recognize same-sex marriages granted in other states.
For many couples across the United States, the Obergefell decision was a victory for marriage equality. What may have been suspected, but no one knew definitively at the time, was exactly how much of an emotional benefit legalizing same sex marriage would have on our nation’s youth. In fact, since the Obergefell decision, research conducted by Julia Raifman, a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, has come to light showing a significant decrease in teen suicide attempts in the U.S. post Obergefell, with the biggest impact amongst gay, lesbian and bisexual kids. This is noteworthy because according to the Trevor Project, an organization that works to prevent suicide among LGBT youth, “Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the second for people aged 10 to 24, with queer teens statistically are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers.”
Before 2015, only 35 states had legalized same-sex marriage. Between 1999 to 2015, Raifman and her peers surveyed nearly 800,000 students of all sexual orientations who participated in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System about suicide attempts. The research found that state marriage equality laws enacted in the years before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling were linked to lower rates of suicide attempts among all high school students, but especially among teens who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure. Before the passage of same-sex legislation, nearly 9 percent of all teens and nearly 29 percent of queer-identifying teens had attempted suicide.
Raifman’s research has shown that after states enacted same-sex marriage laws, suicide attempts dropped to 8 percent among all teens and 25 percent among queer teens. At first glance this might not seem like a significant decrease, but based on these reductions, Raifman estimates that each year since same-sex marriage was legalized about 134,000 fewer teens are attempting suicide.
While the study makes it clear that that only a correlation, not a direct causation, has been proven, Raifman believes that “permitting same-sex marriage reduces structural stigma associated with sexual orientation. There may be something about having equal rights ― even if they have no immediate plans to take advantage of them ― that makes students feel less stigmatized and more hopeful for the future.”
Raifman’s research is an important measure in this new political climate. Same-sex marriage while now federal law is viewed by many as vulnerable, as there are worrying signs that due to the current political climate, Representatives may start to undermine the right to marriage and LGBT protections in general, both at the state and federal levels. Regardless of political views, reducing adolescent suicide attempts is a good thing, and the inference from this recent study that increased social support of the LGBT community can improve teen mental health is something we should all be paying attention to.