Bridging Disciplinary Boundaries (January 11 - 14, 2007)


Pacific O (Hyatt Regency San Francisco)

Where Risk and Protective Factors Operate Differently: Homeless Sexual Minority Youth and Suicide Attempts

N. Eugene Walls, PhD, University of Denver, Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, University of Denver, Cathryn Potter, PhD, University of Denver, and Susan Boyle, MA, Urban Peak.

Purpose Homeless youth are at an overall increased risk of suicidality over their non-homeless counterparts (DiFillippo, Esposito, Overholser, Spirito, 2001; Votta, 2004). Similarly, sexual minority youth have higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts than their heterosexual colleagues (reviewed in McDaniel, Purcell, & D'Augelli, 2001). This study looks at risk and protective factors associated with increased probability of suicide attempts within a sample of the homeless youth population in eight U.S. cities. Researchers hypothesized that certain factors would operate differently for sexual minority youth than their heterosexual counterparts.

Methods Urban Peak, an organization that provides comprehensive services to homeless youth and young adults, coordinated a multi-city public health survey in 2004 through its involvement with the National Network of Youth and National Youth Policy Council and in collaboration with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. Staff at youth agencies in eight U.S. cities were trained to administer the survey and all administered the survey on the same date. Staff at the participating youth agencies attempted to connect with as many homeless youth on the specified date and encouraged them to complete the survey. Participation was voluntary and no incentives were provided. Final sample size was 590 youth.

Variables collected included standard sociodemographics as well as information on suicide attempts, drug and alcohol usage, mental health hospitalizations, experience with child welfare system and other social and health factors. For this study, researchers analyzed the data using logistic regression, clustering on city to examine factors related to suicide attempts. Stata 8.2 was used for data analysis.

Results Two primary differences emerge. While appearing to be a protective factor for heterosexual youth, being homeless in one's own home town is associated with an increased probability of a suicide attempt for sexual minority youth. In the opposite direction, one risk factor for increased probability of reporting a suicide attempt among heterosexual youth having been in custody of social services appears to be a protective factor for sexual minority youth. These divergent findings are discussed within the context of understanding the role of the family and community in stigmatizing sexual minority youth.

Implications for Practice or Policy While homeless sexual minority youth and their heterosexual counterparts share many of the same experiences and risks, attention should be given to how some of these experiences differentially influence the two groups. Relationships with family of origin and community of origin have an additional complexity for sexual minority youth. As such, social workers and other helping professionals should engage sexual minority youth in order to assess the role that these connections may play in suicidal behaviors and other mental health issues.