LGBTQ-SchoolCrossing
Credit: Rebecca Gustaf

The stats are the stuff of parents’ nightmares: suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for youths 12-18 – and New Mexico’s rates are 50 percent higher than national figures.  

Being identified as different from your peers makes that dire situation even riskier. For many Lesbian/Gay/Bi-Sexual/Transgendered/Queer or Questioning (LGBTQ) youths, the schoolyard is a daily source of stress. They are much more likely than their peers to be threatened or injured with a weapon at school or to skip classes because they don’t feel safe.

That stress takes its toll. LGBTQ youth suicide rates are three to four times higher than their peers. In a 2015 study, half of the LGBTQ youths interviewed reported thinking about taking their lives, with one in four confessing to a past attempt. 

But those same schoolyards may hold the key to reducing suicides, says Mary Ramos, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UNM School of Medicine Division of Adolescent Medicine. “Kids spend more awake hours at school than they do anywhere else,” Ramos says. She and colleagues at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation and the University of California, San Diego, are leading a four-year project to work with school nurses to make school grounds safer.

The study, “Implementing School Nursing Strategies to Reduce LGBTQ Adolescent Suicide,” is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.  

In 2011, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control identified six strategies proven to create safe school environments. “None of those things are earth-shattering, but they can be very time-consuming and difficult to incorporate,” Ramos says. “The result is that less than five percent of schools adopt all six strategies.”  

The team hopes a model for change led by school nurses will lead more schools to create safe environments. 

“School nurses are uniquely positioned within schools,” Ramos says. This is a rural state and, in many areas, they are the ones taking on behavioral health issues. It makes sense that they lead the search for the best practices for their schools.”

The nurses will be supported at 40 public high schools, where they will form four- to six-person teams to identify and incorporate policies customized to their campuses. “This is a tremendous public health crisis,” Ramos says. “I would argue it is a moral imperative to make publicly funded schools safe for all students.”