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World AIDS Day Brings Focus to LGBT Mental Health

Dec 09, 2013
By: Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, Assistant Secretary for Health, Department of Health and Human Services

On December 1, 2013, we marked the 25th observance of World AIDS Day. It offered us an opportunity to honor the past, plan for the future and educate ourselves and our loved ones about HIV prevention, testing, and treatment.

This year, my hope is that we can address the shame and social rejection that puts people at risk for two serious health issues—HIV and suicide.  HIV continues to disproportionately affect young, gay and bisexual men—especially those in the African American and Latino communities. A major driver is the societal pressures that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people experience.

Shame, social isolation, bullying, and subtle discrimination can engender a sense of low worth and increase the likelihood that LGBT persons will engage in behaviors that pose major health risks, including unprotected sex and attempted suicide. Of special concern are young people, since:

  • LGBT youth are significantly more likely than their straight peers to be sexually active, to have had multiple partners, and to have engaged in unprotected sexual activity—greatly increasing their risk for HIV infection.[1]
  • LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.[2]
  • Nearly 50 percent of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, and 25 percent report having made a suicide attempt.[3]
  • LGB youth who suffer from high levels of family rejection are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide compared to LGB peers who reported no, or low, levels of family rejection.[4]

In short, family acceptance and understanding is key to helping LGBT youth become healthy adults and lowering their risks for both HIV and suicide. Faith communities, schools and other youth-serving institutions can play a major role in helping families with LGBT children by promoting acceptance and helping young people understand their sexuality. And faith communities can become safe havens and hubs of dialogue, prevention and healing.

On World AIDS Day, and throughout the year, let us focus our efforts on eliminating the stigma, silence and shame that puts so many of our children at risk for life-threatening challenges. I encourage you to visit AIDS.gov to learn more about what you and your community can do to prevent, test for, and treat HIV prevention. You can also find suicide prevention resources at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). Families, as well as faith and community leaders, can all join in renewed national efforts to create an AIDS-free generation.

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[1] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6007a1.htm
[2] http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss6007a1.htm
[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17967119
[4] http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/123/1/346

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