Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Malta Gay News: Gay Suicide in Malta

... an interview with Malta's gay psychologist.
Antoine Spiteri

A large proportion of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils who are bullied by their classmates try to commit suicide, according to research. A study by Dr Ian Rivers, of the College of Ripon and York St John, suggests that half of them contemplate killing or harming themselves, and four in 10 actually harm themselves at least once. Bullying is not the only contributing factor and almost a third harm themselves on more than one occasion. The research also indicates that 17% of bullied individuals- nearly one in five - display symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder later in life.

As adults, some suffer flashbacks and nightmares linked with being bullied at school. John Bowis (UK/EPP-ED), co-author of the written is quoted as saying, "We need to highlight to MEPs that homophobic bullying affects youth indiscriminately. Some victims are LGBT, many are not. Homophobic bullying is particularly destructive, and educators can be ill-prepared to deal with it in a manner that supports the child. This lack of preparation can lead to some dramatic consequences... we're well aware of the elevated rates of suicide amongst LGBT young people. We have to let victims know that they are not alone, and this written declaration will go a long way towards doing just that."

Malta Gay News caught up with psychologist Antoine Spiteri, in London, to discuss this important issue. It is valuable that the gay community is informed about the state of gay suicide in Malta, primarily because it is such a taboo topic to talk about and because there are those who hold positions of power and will do their best to halt publication of material regarding this important matter. Their justification is that “by talking about all these people killing themselves you are encouraging more suicidal behaviour.” The identity of the individual that revealed this to Malta Gay News will be kept a secret. Nonetheless, the statement comes from someone high on the political scale and Malta Gay News feels that by 'sticking our head in the sand', like an ostrich, we are simply ignoring the issue and running away from the problem. This reflects a failure and unwillingness on the part of the authorities to address the needs of people that are considering suicide and a failure to address the contributing factors that may exacerbate suicidal tendencies in the general peopulation.

The Interview:

What are the challenges faced by gays in Malta as compared to gays in other Western EU countries when it comes to coping with depression?

SPITERI: Challenges that impact depression and suicidal tendencies of GLBT in Malta are very much the same as challenges that are faced by GLBT in other EU countries. The difference lies primarily in the availability of intervention programs, treatment, localized knowledge through research, education, social and political views on homosexuality and perhaps a perceived high level of discrimination (in Malta) towards GLBT, resulting from a historically more insular culture.

There is a vacuum in the availability of support services for the community. This is not only true for GLBT people but also for individuals that require mental health services but whose condition is not grave enough to necessitate long term ward residence in Mount Carmel. There are many people who need assistance but do not need to be in "Section 8" [long term ward], as this would exacerbate their condition and make things even worse. Governmental funding is necessary to help set up programs that can serve the needs of these individuals that continue to fall through the crack in our healthcare system.

It is worth noting, however, that Malta is not in as bad a state as compared to even less GLBT friendly nations like Poland etc.

Are GLBT people at higher risk of harming themselves than their heterosexual counterparts?

SPITERI: Findings from a growing body of evidence suggest that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth are at greater risk for suicidal ideation and attempts than non-GLBT youth. It is important to note, however, that sexual orientation alone accounts for only a small portion of the variability in suicidal ideation and attempts. There are various social factors that directly influence suicide risk above and beyond a GLBT orientation. Safren and Heimberg (1999) found that sexual orientation alone contributed relatively little to explain suicide behaviours after accounting for additional personal and environmental risk and protective factors, such as satisfaction with social support and depression.

Research identifying and targeting the needs of Maltese GLBT youth is non-existent but in other EU countries homosexuals may be two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people and might comprise up to 30% of completed youth suicides annually. GLBT youth are 50% more likely to have seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, are twice as likely to attempt suicide at least once. GLBT are eight times more likely to report four or more attempts than their heterosexual peers. One study reported that almost half (48%) of GLBT youth who had thought about suicide reported that these thoughts were at least somewhat related to their sexual orientation.

This association can be explained in part by the greater prevalence of known risk factors in GLBT adolescents, including depression, substance use and violence victimization. Primary social stressors theorized to account for this relationship include family conflict, ostracism at school, and broader stigmatizing socio-cultural factors such as homophobia. For example, among GLBT suicide attempters, almost half reported that their fathers were intolerant or rejecting of their sexual orientation, compared with approximately one-quarter among non-attempters. Fear of harassment and mistreatment is widespread among GLB youth and may be linked to suicidal ideation, and discrimination and stigmatization have been labelled the “primary culprit” in the epidemic of GLB youth suicide. Furthermore, research suggests that certain risk factors, such as victimization at school, may be more potent for GLBT youth than their heterosexual peers.

How can we reduce the risk of self harming behaviour among GLBT people in Malta?

SPITERI: Certain personal, family and community factors have been shown to affect the likelihood of negative outcomes among GLBT youth and other vulnerable populations. Identifying and targeting modifiable social factors is critical to clinical assessment, intervention development and an ultimate reduction in suicide risk among GLBT people.

Despite powerful negative forces, GLBT youth are not a homogenous “at risk” group. Many have multiple “resiliency factors”—personal traits or characteristics of their social environment that protect young people from harm. Indeed the majority of GLB adolescents living in more accepting western societies grow up to lead happy, healthy, productive lives. Nonetheless, GLBT youth suffer a variety of challenges related to their sexual orientation, including family conflict and rejection, and violence victimization. Individuals that grow up in environments that provide them with high levels of family connectedness, teacher caring, other adult caring and school safety show considerable decreased association with suicidal ideation and attempts, and they are less likely to report a history of these suicide behaviours’.

What support options are available to GLBT people in Malta?

SPITERI: Programs, policies and resources are needed across Malta to support GLBT adolescents, as these youth remain at considerably increased risk for suicidal ideation and attempts. Family connectedness, support from other adults, and school safety are all characteristics that are amenable to change, and would be appropriate targets for interventions aimed at protecting young people from self-harm. Improving the ability of parents and other influential adults to connect with and support adolescents grappling with issues of sexual identity may be a critical component of mental health promotion and protection for these young people.

In addition to research and intervention programs, it is also just as crucial to reduce the existing social stigma that is associated with mental health. Stigma is a barrier and discourages individuals and their families from getting the help they need due to the fear of being discriminated against.

What should people do if they are considering harming themselves?

SPITERI: If you or someone you know is considering harming themselves then you must contact your emergency services on 112. Although often untrained to deal with GLBT people in general, the emergency services in Malta are of considerable higher quality than they are in most other countries.

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