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How Trauma Can Drastically Increase Suicide Risk for LGBTQ Youth

  • New research finds that suicide risk can increase for LGBTQIA+ youth the more they deal with trauma.

  • The group found that LGBTQ youth, who reported high levels of trauma symptoms, showed about three times greater odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared to their peers who reported either no or low-to-moderate trauma symptoms.

  • Experts say this research is a needed wake-up call to society to offer better support and safeguards for these young people.

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During a difficult time in our country where the rights and safety of LGBTQIA+ youth are under attack, nonprofit The Trevor Project released a new research brief that examines the role trauma can play on suicide risk for this community of young people.

Building on past understanding of the elevated presence of trauma-related events in the lives of LGBTQIA+ young people, this new data offers a clear window into the negative effects all of this trauma can have on the overall mental health of these youth.

It especially shows how acutely this impacts vulnerable groups within the greater LGBTQIA+ community – especially those with intersectional identities, from people of color to transgender and nonbinary youth to multisex individuals.

Experts say this research is a needed wake-up call to society to offer better support and safeguards for these young people, especially as they continue to navigate a world that can seem hostile and unsupportive.

For the results, The Trevor Project used data from its 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. The national survey spotlights the responses to a host of questions from 33,993 LGBTQ youth nationwide. They ranged in age from 13 to 24 years old.

The new brief reveals that 37% of these youth reported “high levels of trauma symptoms.”

Out of a possible range of 4 to 16, the nonprofit found the average level of trauma symptoms experienced by LGBTQ youth to be a relatively high 11.72. Just 4% of these young people said they never experienced any trauma symptoms in their lives.

Additionally, 60% said they experienced “low to moderate” levels of trauma symptoms.

When zeroing in on who experienced more trauma than others, the survey shows BIPOC (Black and indigenous, people of color), multisex, and trans and nonbinary youth reported the highest levels. The findings reveal 37% of young, BIPOC LGBTQ people experience high levels of trauma symptoms compared to 36% of their white peers.

Within young people of color, Native American and indigenous youth were at the highest levels at 52%, followed by Middle Eastern/Northern African young people at 44%.

Youth who identified as gay were at 29%, those who identified as lesbian were at 38%, bisexual youth were at 33%, queer youth at 42%, pansexual youth at 43%, and 38% of asexual young people self-reported high levels of trauma symptoms. Those who were “unsure” about their sexual orientation were at 38%.

When it came to gender identity, 44% of transgender and nonbinary youth reported high levels of trauma symptoms compared to their cisgender LGBQ peers at 25%.

The numbers were consistent through different age groups. Younger youth — ages 13 to 17 — were at 36%, a number that was similar for 18 to 24-year-olds at 37%.

The group found that LGBTQ youth, who reported high levels of trauma symptoms, showed a drastically increased risk of attempting suicide, about three times greater the odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared to their peers who reported either no trauma symptoms or low-to-moderate trauma symptoms.

One out of every four youth with high self-reported trauma symptoms reported a suicide attempt, while just 3% of those with no trauma symptoms reported a suicide attempt in the past year. About 9% of those with low-to-moderate trauma symptoms reported a suicide attempt during the same period.

Across all demographics — crossing racial and ethnic lines, sexualities, and gender identities — trauma symptoms were tied to elevated incidence of past-year suicide attempts.

“The association that we observed between trauma and suicide risk was expected,” said Myeshia Price (pronouns she/they) PhD, senior research scientist at The Trevor Project, when asked what was most surprising about the survey results. “However, seeing the result that LGBTQ youth who reported high levels of trauma symptoms had over three times greater odds of attempting suicide in the past year was staggering.”

When asked what accounts for high levels of trauma symptoms among this particular community of young people in the United States, Price told Healthline that many LGBTQ youth may commonly experience trauma due to “discrimination and victimization” that is tied directly to their sexual orientation and gender identities.

This could include physical harm based on your sexual orientation, or simply “being denied access to a particular space because of one’s gender identity.” These are simply experiences that “straight, cisgender youth” might never have to experience in their lives, Price added.

“That said, it is important to underscore that LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to trauma, but rather, they are often subjected to it as a result of how their identities are stigmatized in society,” she said.

Kyle T. Ganson, PhD, MSW, an assistant professor who is part of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, who was not associated with this research, told Healthline that these young people face “many social stressors” tied directly to their sexual and/or gender identity.

Ganson said that this bullying victimization and discrimination can result in “poor psychological health, such as trauma-related symptoms.”

“This may manifest as feeling on guard, having nightmares, pervasive negative thoughts, and feeling unsafe. These symptoms are a direct response to adverse and traumatic social experiences and are intended to protect or provide a false sense of safety for the youth, despite being problematic,” he added.

Price pointed to the high levels of trauma that young people of color, as well as multisex, transgender, and nonbinary individuals experience in their lives compared to their cisgender and white peers.

“The Trevor Project often points back to The Minority Stress Model to help explain mental health disparities experienced by LGBTQ individuals. This model suggests that experiences of LGBTQ-based victimization — and the internalization of these experiences and anti-LGBTQ messages — can compound and produce negative mental health outcomes and increase suicide risk among the LGBTQ community,” Price explained.

“Especially amid our current polarizing and often politically hostile environment, LGBTQ youth who hold multiple marginalized identities may face discrimination and victimization based not only on their sexual orientation or gender identity, but also their race, ethnicity, and/or a number of other aspects that make up their full selves,” they added.

Ganson echoed those thoughts, explaining that this survey holds up past research that reveals that inhabiting multiple, intersecting minority identities “can exacerbate the effects of minority-related stressors,” which can compound “the negative and adverse effects, such as trauma and anxiety-related symptoms.”

“These youth are trying to navigate complex social situations that often marginalize them due to their gender identity and their racial and ethnic identity. This is particularly challenging for youth who are searching for a sense of identity and social acceptance,” Ganson added.

“Of course, this is stressful for many and can cause adverse psychological effects. Additionally, these youth may be less inclined to seek mental health treatment for fear of not receiving adequate and affirming care, thus their symptoms may become more engrained and amplified,” he said.

Of course, the link between trauma and associated suicide risk is troubling. To put this in context, Ganson explained that for some people the repeated experience of traumatic symptoms on a daily basis can be challenging especially for “those who don’t receive appropriate care.”

“Therefore, these youth may seek extreme and dangerous ways to manage their symptoms. This may manifest in non-suicidal self-injurious behaviors, such as cutting, and suicidal behaviors, such as suicidal ideation and suicide planning and attempts,” he said. “It is likely that those with more trauma symptoms may experience a greater degree of suicidal behavior as the intensity of the trauma symptoms are likely unbearable at times.”

Ganson added that for some people, suicide might appear “the only way to relieve the suffering they are experiencing.” They might also believe that suicide is the only way they can “remove themselves from social situations that cause trauma.”

“They may also internalize that they are a burden to others based on the identities they hold and the challenges they may be experiencing. It is most important to understand the unique and individual link between trauma and mental health symptoms and suicidal behavior for each youth in order to support them effectively and increase overall safety,” Ganson said.

Does this data offer a roadmap to ways society can better assist these young people? Ganson thinks so.

“This is a large problem that needs to be addressed from multiple angles. As a society, we need to become more open and accepting to all individuals no matter their gender, sexual identity, and racial and ethnic identity,” Ganson stressed. “This requires work at the micro, individual level, as well as the macro and policy, political, and ideological level.”

He said that we need to ensure the settings that these young people engage in – think schools, healthcare settings, extracurricular activities – stand as equitable, safe spaces with policies in place “that address issues related to discrimination and marginalization of youth based on the identities they hold.”

“We need to ensure that professionals – i.e., teachers, providers, and doctors – are trained in providing affirming care and support to ensure that spaces youth engage in are safe for all and to reduce avoidance of help-seeking,” he added.

Price explained that given discrimination, harassment, and violence all contribute to one’s trauma symptoms, enacting policies that can support and protect LGBTQ youth can be helpful interventions for reducing the said trauma symptoms. This, in turn, can lower suicide risk among these young people.

“Further, research has consistently demonstrated that protective factors such as family acceptance and affirming environments can help address these disparities. We encourage all people – and especially youth-serving professionals – to create LGBTQ-inclusive, affirming environments for youth,” Price added. “Taking relatively simple steps to show LGBTQ youth that they belong can have enormous, potentially life-saving impacts.”

When asked what is next for this look into the link between trauma and suicide risk among LGBTQIA+ youth, Price said this research brief “illuminated a number of important insights into the realities that many LGBTQ youth experiencing trauma symptoms face.” As a result, The Trevor Project hopes to examine this more.

“In particular, we hope to better explore effective ways to help LGBTQ youth manage, or reduce, their trauma symptoms to help them lead healthier, happier lives,” Price said.

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