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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 18, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 20
Family Acceptance Project offers help for preventing youth suicide
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Family Acceptance Project offers help for preventing youth suicide

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

With media reports of suicide among LGBT youth becoming increasingly common, communities are grappling with the urgent need to identify interventions to prevent suicide and suicidal behavior among LGBT youth. However, until May 16, no 'best practices' had been identified or designated to help reduce vulnerability and risk among LGBT children, youth, or adults.

Although recent media attention has focused primarily on the impact of bullying on self-harming behavior, suicide is typically the result of many interacting factors including depression, substance use, and despair, in addition to environmental stressors. These complex interactions underscore the need for comprehensive suicide prevention strategies and for interventions to change the environment at the systems level. For LGBT youth, family systems are especially important.

For the past decade, the Family Acceptance Project (FAP) at San Francisco State University, under the direction of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, has been studying the impact of family acceptance and rejection on suicide risk among LGBT youth. Published findings from these studies point to the critical role of families in both contributing to and protecting against suicidal behavior and risk among LGBT young people. FAP's multidisciplinary team has been developing resources, interventions, and strategies to help diverse families reduce risk and promote their LGBT children's well-being.

The first of these resources - a multilingual, multicultural series of family education booklets, 'Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families With Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Children,' are the first-ever 'Best Practice' resources for suicide prevention for LGBT youth and young adults issued by the national SPRC/AFSP Best Practices Registry for Suicide Prevention.

Coordinated by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the registry designates and maintains an expert-reviewed compendium of approved 'Best Practices' to prevent suicide, all of which address specific aims of the national suicide prevention plan and have met objective criteria based on accuracy, safety, likelihood of meeting suicide prevention objectives, and adherence to prevention guidelines.

Available in culture-specific English, Spanish, and Chinese versions, the 'Supportive Families, Healthy Children' education booklets were developed based on extensive research and direct feedback from families, LGBT youth, and the providers who serve them. The booklets help ethnically and religiously diverse families understand how specific reactions to their children's LGBT identity both contribute to and protect against risk for suicide and related health problems. Research-based guidance for families is depicted non-judgmentally using personal stories, lists of behaviors that both protect against and contribute to suicide risk and other serious health problems, and approaches to decrease family conflict and increase support. FAP's core research and family education materials were supported by the California Endowment, a health foundation dedicated to expanding access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities.

'Our work is grounded in rigorous research and rooted in the cultural experiences and values of scores of diverse LGBT youth and families,' said Dr. Ryan. 'So these family education booklets resonate for very diverse families and help them decrease rejecting behaviors which our research shows - though motivated by care and concern - instead contribute to serious health risks for LGBT young people.'

'For example,' she continued, 'our research shows that common rejecting behaviors such as trying to prevent LGBT youth from learning about their identity, not allowing them to have Gay friends, or not letting them participate in an LGBT youth group are related to a nine-times greater likelihood of attempted suicide.'

In discussing the importance of FAP's family education materials, Dr. Ann Haas, director of prevention projects for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, noted, 'For the past decade, Dr. Ryan and her team have undertaken foundational research on the role of families and related social institutions in contributing to protective factors and risk for suicidal behavior among LGBT young people. They have turned that research into powerful prevention tools for diverse families. Used in programs across the country, these tools will save lives.'

More than 100,000 copies of the family education booklets have been disseminated across the U.S. and other countries for use in schools, primary care and behavioral health programs, foster care and juvenile justice services, family service agencies, suicide prevention programs, and pastoral counseling and other faith-based organizations.

Additionally, the booklets are used in colleges, universities, and professional training programs, and by government agencies.

Agencies and community groups that use the Family Acceptance Project's 'Best Practice' materials and family intervention approach report substantial positive changes in prevention and practice.

Jerry Peterson, coordinator for a Contra Costa County, California, mental health support initiative for LGBT youth, said, 'FAP's research is the cornerstone of our work in Contra Costa County. These booklets are a critical education and prevention tool that not only help prevent depression and suicide, but also help prevent substance abuse, sexual health risks, and expulsion and removal from the home. FAP's inherently respectful approach strengthens families and helps build a Gay or Transgender child's sense of self-worth in the context of their families. This is especially important for LGBT youth of color.'

Greater Boston PFLAG President, Stan Griffith, whose chapters have worked with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and other groups since 2007 to disseminate FAP's family intervention approach and materials across the state, noted, 'The Family Acceptance Project's research and family support strategies that show the crucial role of family acceptance have caused us to totally rethink the way we approach our work. We now know that it's essential for every parent - and every prospective parent - to have this information. 'Supportive Families, Healthy Children' is an indispensable part of every individual or group conversation with parents and caregivers and with professionals who provide counseling, health, and other services to children, youth, and families.'

'Supportive Families, Healthy Children' is available for download at http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/publications. Printed copies for distribution are available from the Family Acceptance Project in orders of any size. Lower literacy and faith-based versions are in development.

FAP provides on-site training in using these materials. Contact fap@sfsu.edu to learn more.

Information on the 'Best Practice' designation for 'Supportive Families, Healthy Children' is available on the Best Practices Registry's web page, hosted by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center at www.sprc.org.

The Family Acceptance Project is a research, intervention, education, and policy initiative that is designed to (1) improve the health, mental health, and well-being of LGBT children and adolescents; (2) strengthen and help ethnically and religiously diverse families to support their LGBT children; (3) help LGBT youth stay in their homes to prevent homelessness and the need for custodial care in the foster care and juvenile justice systems; (4) inform public policy and family policy; and (5) develop a new, evidence-based, family model of wellness, prevention, and care to promote well-being and decrease risk for LGBT youth. For more information, visit http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/.

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