When a person who identifies as LGBTIQA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual or as other diverse sexualities or gender identities) takes their own life, the impact on their loved ones and the broader LGBTIQA+ community can be both devastating and complex. For the family and friends of the person who has died, grief may be complicated by strained relationships, or by issues around who is or is not included in commemorations of the person’s death. For LGBTIQA+ people who lose their partner to suicide, not being recognised as their loved one’s spouse, or as a parent of their children, can cause financial and legal difficulties and significant distress.
Unfortunately, members of LGBTIQA+ communities are likely to have experienced higher rates of suicide loss and grief than the wider population, and the loss of someone close who has taken their own life may add to their existing grief. Queerphobia and heteronormativity (the social expectation that people should behave and develop according to traditional expectations and expressions of gender) that is perceived, expected or experienced during the grief process can create a barrier to seeking safe and appropriate support.
About suicide and LGBTIQA+ communities
LGBTIQA+ people are over-represented within suicide statistics. This may be explained by a number of factors. LGBTIQA+ people face stigma, discrimination and exclusion based on their gender identities or sexual orientations. This may lead to internalised homophobia and transphobia (when a person takes on the negative messages they have been given about themselves by society and begins to believe them to be true). Some LGBTIQA+ people may also have complicated relationships with their families of origin, and may be isolated for this reason.
LGBTIQA+ people also have the highest rates of suicidality (suicidal thinking) of any population in Australia: 20% of transgender Australians and 15% of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians report having suicidal thoughts, and up to 50% of transgender people have attempted suicide at least once in their lives. LGBTIQA+ individuals who also identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, who come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds or who live rurally or remotely are at particular risk of suicide and self-harm.
LGBTIQA+ people are vulnerable to other socioeconomic factors that increase their risk of suicide, such as homelessness, alcohol and other drug use, and difficulties finding employment as a result of stigma and queerphobia.
Despite marriage equality legislation, LGBTIQA+ people still carry the weight of historical and ongoing legal discrimination. Violence and trauma still occurs at a much higher rate in the lives of LGBTIQA+ people compared to the general population. For LGBTIQA+ people, experiences of harassment, discrimination, ostracism and marginalisation, diminishes mental health and wellbeing, and many struggle to find family and social supports which are protective against mental health concerns. Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely as heterosexual Australians to have no contact with their family of origin, or to have no family to rely on when they face troubling life events.
It is important to recognise that the mental health issues and suicidality of LGBTIQA+ people can generally be attributed to stigma and discrimination from external sources, rather than anything ‘lacking’ or ‘unwell’ about LGBTIQA+ people themselves. While LGBTIQA+ people experience increased risk of mental illness, suicide and self-harm, it is important to keep in mind that LGBTIQA+ communities are resilient. Factors such as community connection, freedom to express oneself authentically, support from loved ones and non-judgemental healthcare greatly improve outcomes for LGBTIQA+ people.
Supporting members of the LGBTIQA+ community bereaved by suicide
For family and friends of LGBTIQA+ people who are grieving the loss of someone close who has taken their own life, be aware that the person’s grief may be complex. Past trauma, their sense of identity and belonging, and memories of their own mental health history may challenge their ability to cope. Making time and space for the person to grieve in their own way and providing support without judgement is important.
For some members of the LGBTIQA+ community, the suicide of queer celebrities can be experienced as personal bereavements owing to the significance of their impact as role models. For many LGBTIQA+ individuals, the death of an icon can be destabilising, and an understanding of LGBTQIA+ celebrities as symbols of acceptance and hope can be a key part of providing support.
For health professionals working with LGBTIQA+ individuals bereaved by suicide it is important to provide services that are welcoming, understanding and safe. This may be achieved by:
- being explicitly queer friendly, i.e. by displaying rainbow flag stickers, by removing unnecessary gender markers from intake forms, by providing accessible unisex bathrooms, and by inviting clients to discuss their gender pronouns
- ensuring staff receive competency training for working with sexually and gender diverse people so that clients are not faced with the added strain of educating service providers
- being mindful of differences in experience and trying not to make assumptions about a person’s gender, relationship status or sexuality
- refraining from asking questions that are not relevant
- genuinely apologising for mistakes (e.g. if you used an incorrect gender pronoun) and moving on.