by Marsha Rakestraw

According to a 2014  study published in the International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, Canadian schools that have longer-standing (three years or more) gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and/or anti-homophobic bullying policies are more likely to have “significantly reduced odds” for “homophobic discrimination” and “suicidal ideation,” not just for students who are gay, but also for many heterosexual students.

As lead study author and University of British Columbia School of Nursing Professor Elizabeth Saewyc noted, “We know that LGBTQ students are at higher risk for suicide, in part because they are more often targeted for bullying and discrimination. … But heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it’s better for students’ mental health, no matter what their orientation.”

Although researchers say they don’t know precisely how GSAs influence suicide risk, what is clear is that schools have an effective tool for supporting and protecting students most at risk for bullying and suicide.

As researchers noted in the study, “The potential effect is not small; although LGB youth generally have twice or greater the odds of suicidal behaviour than their heterosexual peers, each of these interventions, where they had been in place for a few years, reduced those odds by half or more.”

Older studies, such as this one from Columbia University, which surveyed nearly 32,000 Oregon juniors, noted that “a supportive school and community” may help reduce suicide risk for teens who are gay.

Creating a school culture that supports, nurtures and empowers students; providing students with the knowledge, skills and practice to become their best selves and act as compassionate, conscientious citizens; offering students opportunities to be leaders and changemakers — these elements are all part of humane education.

Studies like this one about the influence of GSAs and a more positive and tolerant school culture highlight just how relevant and vital humane education is in creating a just, compassionate, humane school, community, and world.