A study of suicide mortality among US veterans found that the homophobic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US military had a massive impact on soldiers that belong to a sexual minority.

A report published on JAMA Network Open on 28 December, “Evaluation of Suicide Mortality Among Sexual Minority US Veterans From 2000 to 2017”, suggests that sexual minorities are more likely to take their own lives than their heterosexual counterparts.

Using electronic data from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the researchers examined the records of more than 96,893 US sexual minority veterans. Transgender veterans were not included in the study.

The researchers found that US sexual minority veterans had a significantly higher suicide mortality rate than their heterosexual counterparts or the general population.

Between 2000 and 2017, 436 lesbian, gay and bisexual veterans had died by suicide, of which 346 were men and 90 were women. In 2017 alone, 3.8 per cent of deaths among LGB veterans were due to suicide, while the suicide rate for the general US population was only 1.7 per cent.



Causal analysis: Hide-and-seek to blame?


US President Barack Obama lifted the ban on lesbians, gays, transgender and transsexuals serving in the service in 2011.

The researchers see one factor for the significantly higher suicide mortality rate among lesbian, gay and bisexual veterans in the stigmatisation that accompanied the homophobic military policy “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”.

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” came into effect in 1994 and only allowed queer people to serve in the military if they hid their sexual orientation.

“In records of the thousands of discharges that have taken place, soldiers* described how a heightened culture of fear and secrecy arose around them because [LGB] allegations were used to punish recruits.”

According to a 2010 report, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy led to many soldiers hiding their sexual orientation from doctors, with the result that sexually transmitted diseases often went undiagnosed. Queer soldiers and their partners often remained untreated, and lesbian, gay and bisexual patients received no information about HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases.

Other causes identified by the researchers include chronic high levels of stress, including depression, poor health, childhood experiences of abuse, homelessness and sexual violence.

“Exacerbated effects of minority stress may lead to excess suicide death in [LGB] veterans,” the researchers write.


Further research needed


“To our knowledge, no studies have examined suicide mortality among veterans based on their [LGB] status.”

The research team now wants to make up for that. Further research is now needed to determine whether and how suicide prevention efforts reach sexual minority veterans.

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