Not surprisingly, sexual minorities are at higher risk for mental health disorders. Gay youth ages 14-21 are significantly more likely to report depression and anxiety then their straight peers. Substance abuse within these groups is often double, triple or even quadruple the rates found in the heterosexual population. And in addition to alcohol and drug use, gay kids are prone to skipping or dropping out of school. In fact, sexual minority youth drop out at a rate of 28% greater than straight students due largely because they feel their schools are turning their backs on the problem.
And while we typically associate post-traumatic stress disorder with the horrors of warfare, make no mistake: Many of our gay youth are in the battle for their lives. In a recent study of gay and bi-sexual men who were bullied, 26% said they were or continue to be distressed by recollections of bullying in school. Their symptoms include distressing and intrusive memories and flashbacks, and a feeling of reliving events while awake.
But here’s the important thing to know and remember: Gay youth are not at a higher risk for suicide and mental health disorders because they are gay. They are at a higher risk because of the discrimination and victimization they endure as sexual minorities. These kids are well aware of the national debate on “homosexuality,” and the devastating rhetoric that is spewed as truth. And technology has brought us a relentlessness quality to bullying – as though the bullied are held hostage by their tormentors.
For some kids, there is no safe place – not even their homes. Studies show that suicide attempts are 8 times more likely for gay youth whose parents reject them. Compared to their gay peers whose families are accepting, these kids are 6 times more likely to report high levels of depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use illegal and drugs and have unprotected sex.
- How can they not see themselves as vulnerable and powerless when sexual orientation is such an important part of their self-concept?
- How can they not feel lonely and isolated when they hide who they are for fear that others wouldn’t accept them if they knew the truth?
- And how can these children not be sad when they live in a heterosexist society that can feel unsafe and when people, sometimes even their families, act in ways that are uncaring or even rejecting?
With increased levels of victimization come higher levels of depression and anxiety and decreased levels of self-esteem. Here’s what to look for in a youth who seems depressed and may be suicidal:
- Indirect verbal signs of depression; the child may talk about “a friend” who’s suicidal. There may also be written or artistic expressions about death or suicide. Find out what the child is writing about, drawing, or listening to.
- Change in eating or sleeping habits
- Social withdrawal and a lack of interest in usual activities
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, or negative attitudes toward self
- Substance abuse
- Giving away valuable possessions
- Sudden, dramatic mood lift after a period of depression or serious problems. This can sometimes signal a decision to end one’s life, and it can be easily missed.
Here’s the good news. Suicide among gay youth is preventable. A relatively recent study conducted in the U.S. found that self-acceptance is the best predictor of mental health for sexual minority youth. We must ensure that ALL young people feel safe, that they are accepted and live in inclusive environments at home, school and in the community. Here are some specific things that can be done:
- Raise community awareness and not let the issue of gay bullying get shoved into the closet due to “religious or moral convictions.” Community leaders must model acceptance and zero tolerance for bullying.
- Model acceptance in your homes. Call out your child when he or she says, “That’s so gay.” This phrase is repeated so often that many don’t think of it as the insult it is. In much of our society, being gay is considered negative, so the term gay is used as a way to demonstrate just how bad the person or the “thing” is.
- Encourage your child to do something if they see something. Studies show it helps to interrupt bullying and harassment. Just knowing that someone was willing to stick up for them can make a huge difference to gay kids.
- If you’re a parent to a gay or transgender child, communicate with them, love them unconditionally and embrace them regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
- In schools, we must let these kids know that they have advocates. By enacting school policies that prohibit this type of victimization we can help reduce negative psychosocial outcomes. Schools need to add sexual orientation and gender identity to school policies on discrimination and harassment. This sends the message that NO ONE should be treated differently because of an admitted or presumed sexual orientation.
Stopping the harassment of people based on their sexual orientation shouldn’t be a liberal or conservative issue. It’s a humanitarian issue, and can be a matter of life and death. The only way to fight these trends is by changing the cultural climate for gay youth.
By Dr. Frances Brown, PsyD, MSP Director of Clinical Training