Facing the Stigma: The Increased Psychological Struggles of LGBT Individuals

The purpose of this article is not to invoke sympathy but to promote awareness, action and change. We hope to reach not only Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals, but family, friends and anyone who may come in contact with this community. The process of coming out, bullying and discrimination from others, mental disorders, and suicide are all factors that this community faces, often at higher rates than non-LGBT individuals.

Similar to straight individuals, LGBT individuals go through a process of self-identification and self-acceptance, but dissimilar to straight individuals, they also must accept their sexuality. Usually in early adolescence, LGBT youth begin to notice that they are not attracted to the opposite sex and start exploring the possibility of being homosexual. These youth then go through the process of accepting, questioning or denying their sexuality. Self-acceptance can be hindered when the youth is in an environment where homosexuality is discouraged. In fact, they may start incorporating the negative views into their identity. The internalization of these negative views has been shown to cause depressive and anxiety symptoms. However, most youth are able to overcome these negative views and eventually accept their sexuality.

Once self-acceptance has been acquired, LGBT youth then gauge their environment in order to negotiate disclosing their sexuality to other people. Studies have shown that individuals are disclosing their sexuality at younger ages than in the past, more often to their friends first, since friendships are a major influence during this time. Mothers are usually the first family member to whom LGBT youth come out, followed by fathers. Individuals choose to come out to friends first because they view them as more accepting and tend to rely more on them for social support. Parents are typically told second about their child’s sexuality because LGBT youth fear that their parents will react negatively, even with physical and verbal assaults. As a result, youth tend to come out to parents in their late teenage to early adulthood years. A unique characteristic of being an LGBT individual is the fear of rejection from family members based on sexuality. Coming out could also be an issue when youth see their community as hostile and dangerous to their physical and emotional well-being as a LGBT member.

A common place for this hostile behavior to take place is in schools. Children in the LGBT community are far more likely to be bullied than children who identify as straight. This bullying can come in a variety of forms, ranging from verbal abuse to physical violence. But what effects does this teasing really have on youth? Studies have shown that high school students who are subjected to bullying based on their sexual minority status have higher levels of depression and suicidal ideation and are more likely to report using drugs and alcohol as a means to cope with their hostile environment. In order to combat this, schools must take a stance to provide supportive environments for children who identify as part of the LGBT community. Although this support can be in the form of clubs or support groups for these individuals, it is important that we take it a step further, changing the overall culture of the school so that children in this community not only feel accepted and supported by others within the LGBT community, but by the entire school as well.

Previous research states that rates of psychological disorders for the LGBT community are difficult to measure due to a lack of accurate statistics as to the size of this population. Dual stigma (sexual orientation in conjunction with a mental illness) may also be a rationale for this disparity of information. However, of the approximately 18 million people with a serious mental illness, reasonable estimates have been made that about 720,000 are from the LGBT community. In the few studies available, researchers have found that LGB men are less likely to report psychotic disorders (e.g., schizophrenia) but are more likely to report mood disorders (e.g.. depression and bipolar disorder). Most research also suggests that LGBT individuals are likely to be at higher risk for substance use disorders.

Compared to heterosexual men, homosexual men have an increased risk for major depression, bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder during adolescence and adulthood. Homosexual males are also at greater risk for co-morbidity with other health concerns, such as the use of illegal drugs and a greater risk for suicide. Homosexual and bisexual men are more likely to have reported a panic disorder in the previous 12 month period. Lesbian and bisexual women have reported higher rates of depression and anxiety when compared to heterosexual women. Bisexual women have reported even higher rates of mood or anxiety disorders than lesbian women. Lesbian and bisexual women have also reported higher rates of heavy drinking and drug abuse. Bisexual women are most likely to inject drugs, which can put them at higher risk for sexually transmitted infections. Transgender individuals are particularly prone to depression and anxiety disorders, especially those who have not transitioned and remain in their birth gender. Alcohol and tobacco use is also high in this population.

Differences in rates exist not because LGBT individuals are more likely to have a mental illness, but due to the difficulties associated with negotiating coming out, the fear of or actual familial disapproval and rejection, victimization by peers, and stress surrounding having a stigmatized identity.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people from 15 to 24 years old. LGB youth (no available statistics for transgender youth) are nearly 1.5 – 3 times more likely to have reported suicidal ideation than non-LGB youth and nearly 1.5 – 7 times more likely to have reported attempting suicide. No statistics exist for suicide completions since most mortality data does not include sexual orientation. Causes for such high rates include fewer protective factors (e.g., a sense of connectedness to school and family), and more risk factors (e.g., experiencing bullying, harassment and discrimination). Over a decade of research evidence clearly indicates that educational institutions have a legal, ethical and professional responsibility to respond appropriately to the urgent health, safety and educational needs of sexual minority youth. A failure to respond by important adults in the lives of such youth, places vulnerable youth at significant risk and denies them access to important protective factors in their lives.

Social stigma and homophobia create hostile environments for sexual minority youth. Religious cultures often foster such environments which can lead to internalized homophobia, shame, guilt, depression and suicidal ideation. It also leads to identity confusion in youth who are religious themselves, as same-sex attraction is viewed as sinful or immoral. As a result, many individuals reject religion or God or convert to a religious view more affirming of their sexual orientation. Some organizations like the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalists welcome people of all sexual orientations and honor their relationships. The Metropolitan Community Church was created by members of the gay community to fill this need as well. Other sexual minority individuals turn to ancient religious traditions such as Native American and Pagan faiths as a source of spiritual comfort.

Many resources exist to offer support and to help those associated with the LGBT community cope and thrive. Istandwithyou.org is an online resource for members of the LGBTQ community and their allies to use in order to promote and advance the fight for equality for all people. It includes links to organizations dedicated to advancing the rights of members of the LGBTQ community. It also includes a forum to share experiences, ideas and a chance to meet others who are dedicated to the fight for equal rights for all people.