The number of suicides amongst LGBTI people in Switzerland is ringing alarm bells. Local queer organizations have described the state of mental health among of LGBTI young people as being in crisis.
Suicide rates amongst LGBTQ+ young people is two to five times higher, compared with the rest of the Swiss population.
About 50% of suicide attempts amongst gay men take place before the age of 20, rising to 74% for young lesbian women.
Social isolation, discrimination, and hates crimes are the driving reason behind the crisis.
Switzerland made headlines recently when it criminalized homophobia yet LGBTI people argue the country is trailing behind its European neighbours.
In fact, the country is currently ranked 27 out of 49 European countries when it comes to LGBTI right on the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s (ILGA) Rainbow Index.
Young and trans in Switzerland
‘Switzerland is a conservative country,’ April told Gay Star News. ‘I sometimes feel like the progress we’re making is nowhere near the pace we need to move forward.’
As a non-binary young person living in Zurich, April did not want to their real name published, through fear ofattack.
The stark difference between urban and rural Switzerland, resulted in them moving to the country’s largest city.
‘Queer people move to the cities if they can,’ explained April.
‘If you go to rural areas, be prepared for a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia; I avoid going there.’
April believed social isolation for queer young people living in rural areas could be contributing to poor mental health.
‘You feel like you don’t have space to exist,’ they said. ‘Kids are bullied in schools, you hear slurs in the streets, people lose their jobs for being trans without much protection.’
In Switzerland – the home of the United Nations – April thinks authorities are sweeping domestic human rights issues under the carpet.
‘Swiss society always thinks it’s the pinnacle of democracy and human rights, there isn’t much awareness of exactly how much is wrong here,’ they said.
Homophobia was recent made illegal, yet the law remains controversial.
April said lawmakers have forgotten transgender and non-binary people in this conversation.
‘It’s nice to have legal protections,’April said.
‘It definitely needs to be expanded to trans people, however, as we are one of the most stigmatized and marginalised groups in our society.’
A role model for young people
Carmela Troncoso lectures at a university in Lausanne, a large city located in souths-est Switzerland.
She thinks more could be done to support LGBTI young people in the education system.’I am not surprised to hear that,’ Troncoso said of the suicide statistics among LGBTI people.
‘For many people it is a struggle to even accept themselves. If there is any pushback in their environment, then it becomes very hard for that young person.’
As somebody who is ‘out’ with students and colleagues, Troncoso working to increase awareness about LGBTI people with her students.
She wants more awareness raising amongst Swiss society of the hurdles that LGBTI people face in their daily lives.
The Swiss legal system has many barriers for LGBTI people’ Troncoso said. There is no marriage, no IVF for same-sex couples, adoption follows the step-child process which is quite hard and not adapted to LGBT people.’
She acknowledged the government’s decision to make homophobia a crime was a positive step. But the move was ‘still far from doing enough’.
A change in the laws might, in her opinion, help tackle broader issues around mental health and wellbeing.
‘Governments can do a lot for normalization and visibility,’ ‘But right now in Switzerland the main thing they can help with is to remove barriers for LGBTI to marry and have a family like any heterosexual couple.’
Building a place of safety for LGBTI young people
In response to the spike in suicides amongst LGBTQ+ young people, queer charities have set up “refuges” for young people to stay should they feel unsafe at home.
‘The refuge is a place where young people can come to find support and a person that listens,’said Muriel Waeger from PINKCROSS, a Swiss LGBTQ+ organisation.
These refuge centers are slowly popping up across Switzerland, yet remain only accessible to those living in urban areas.
They provide training to professionals working with young people. The also give families with LGBTI children an opportunity to engage in mediation sessions.
‘Those mediations lead to a better acceptance of the families,’ continues Muriel. ‘And if they don’t, the refuge can offer a shelter till the situation gets better for the young person.’
Some young people stay in the refuge centre until they find employment or alternative housing arrangements.
The work of her organisation is perhaps more important now than ever before, especially given the alarming number of young people dying from suicide.
‘Hate, incomprehension, lack of self-esteem and rejection have heavy impact on mental health and can lead to depression and even suicide,’ states Muriel.
‘Young people need support and when they don’t get it at the right moment, when they can speak with nobody and are rejected everywhere there are consequences on themselves.’
The work of PINKCROSS remains unsustainable, however, without the backing of the Swiss government.
“The government should help a lot more if they want LGBT+ people to be more accepted,” she says. “Not only they should help the organisations but they should also provide better formation for teachers and doctors alike.”
A glimmer of hope?
Geneva Pride took place at the start of this month, which saw thousands taking to the streets along the banks of Lake Geneva.
‘I thought it was important to attend Pride with my daughters, because it’s not something that happens every day,’ said Marcel Barelli, an LGBTI ally.
Geneva resident Barelli, believed conversations about LGBTI people should start at an early age.
‘We often talk about homosexuality with my eldest daughter,; he explained. ‘I thought it was important to go, even if all the social problems are not yet clear to her.
Barelli added: ‘I also think we should be talking more to our children about being LGBT,.Especially at school, it’s important. The younger, the better.’
Social isolation, discrimination and hate crimes are all contributing to these trends, something which LGBTQ+ organisations have made clear they cannot challenge alone without the support of government.