Familial Rejection of Gay Teens Can Lead to Mental Health Problems Later

By Eliza Strickland | December 30, 2008 4:20 pm

gay prideGay young adults who were rejected by their families when they came out as teenagers are much more likely to attempt suicide, have unprotected sex, and have problems with drug use and depression, according to a new study. The findings are based on surveys of 224 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults in California who ranged in age from 21 to 25. Gay Latinos were most likely to experience a poor reception from their parents, and had the highest rates of risk factors for HIV and mental health problems, according to the research [Scientific American].

The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics [subscription required], don’t prove that a family’s negative reaction to a child’s sexuality directly causes problems later in life. But it’s clear that “there’s a connection between how families treat gay and lesbian children and their mental and physical health” [HealthDay News] said social worker Caitlin Ryan, the study’s lead author. She found that teenagers who were rejected by their families were eight times as likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report serious depression, and three times as likely to have unprotected sex and use drugs.

Ryan believes that families that reject a gay son or daughter often disapprove of homosexuality on religious grounds, and can be well-intentioned in their efforts to change their child’s sexual orientation. In terms of rejection, “we saw that in so many cases, families and caregivers thought what they were doing would help their children have a better life, fit in, belong and be accepted by others,” Ryan said. “They’d try to change their gender identity, forbid them from spending time with a gay friend, not let them have access to information about what it’s like to be a gay, lesbian or bisexual person.” In some cases, parents wouldn’t stand up for their children when they had problems at school, Ryan said. “Their parents would say, ‘Of course that’s going to happen to you.’ They’ll blame the victim” [HealthDay News]. Interestingly, Ryan’s study found that forbidding a teenager from hanging out with gay friends carried as much risk of later mental health problems as physical and verbal abuse.

In the paper, Ryan suggests that pediatricians ask their young patients whether they’ve experienced any family problems relating to their sexual orientation. Although the recommendation is likely to be controversial, she says that such conversations are necessary because young people have been coming out at younger ages. Consistent with other studies, the youths in Ryan’s study were on average under 11 years old when they first experienced a same-sex attraction, were just over 14 when they realized they were gay and came out to their families before they had turned 16 [AP].

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Image: flickr / K. Coles

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    The third paragraph is quite “informative” and further affirms the opinion I hold of theism…

  • http://notrobsstuff.blogspot.com Robguy

    ..so people that reject members of their family based on religious beliefs are mentally ill?

  • http://baltimore21201.wordpress.com/ Dana C. LaRocca

    I am more than a little suspect of a “scientific” study of less than three hundred subjects making queer (as in “peculiar”) conclusions “that teenagers who were rejected by their families were eight times as likely to attempt suicide, six times as likely to report serious depression, and three times as likely to have unprotected sex and use drugs.

    I have no doubt that kids rejected by their families are more likely to have mental health problems than those who are accepted. But it is hardly “science” when those conclusions are drawn from surveys of a tiny sampling.

    The first problem is that the conclusions are based on the subject’s own perceptions. Doesn’t it occur to the researchers that a young person who is depressed or suicidal might feel rejected when in fact he or she is not?

    Now let’s do the math. According to The National Institute of Mental Health there are about 250 suicide attempts for every 100,000 people. That’s 2.5 per ten thousand. Social worker Caitlin Ryan’s sampling of 224 subjects would result in one half of an attempted suicide based on her “eight times as likely” scenario.

    Clearly half a person did not report a suicide attempt. Nor is it likely that a whole person reported a half a suicide attempt.

    Give me science. Please.

  • Nik

    In this day and age we see more and more people coming out and admitting their to their homosexuality. we also see more people who are left handed. these are only two groups of people who are now more accepted for what they are rather than being told what they should be. And I think it’s awesome.
    Imagine(everyone who is straight) that growing up you weren’t allowed to play or socialize with peers of the opposite sex. that same sex was the way to go. wouldn’t you feel confused? what you are told vice what you feel? and how do you think you’d lash out? your parents not caring about you may lead you to not care about yourself. take unnecessary risks, i.e. drugs unprotected sex, even suicide. In the end, if your own family rejects you, what’s left? Hell, maybe that’s learned behavior! parents treat me like utter shit, maybe that’s how I’m supposed to be treated by everyone, even myself!
    Kids of all ages should be accepted for who they are. nurtured in the natural direction of who they are to be. artists, for art. Musicians for music. do you scold a child for having the wrong colored eyes? or for having Down’s syndrome? I hope not. they had nothing to do with those decisions. It’s in their genes. Stop making children feel bad for who they are. let lefties be lefties, let homosexuals be homosexuals.

  • Nancy

    So, you think 300 subjects is too small a sampling to constitute a valid scientific survey? Funny … I’ll bet you have no such qualms about the validity of Sigmund Freud’s studies in the field of psychotherapy, which he founded on a sample size of … three, exactly THREE, aristocratic Viennese women.

  • http://baltimore21201.wordpress.com/ Dana C. LaRocca

    Sad to say I was conducting my own research last night on the annual practice of ethanol consumption and its effect on cognition. Needless to say my math was way off base, by a factor of ten times.

    That said, the sampling was still much too small. The attempted suicide rate for Ms. Ryan’s study would have been five out of 244 (not a half a person as I previously stated). It would have been accurate if she had merely stated that five subjects attempted suicide. Instead she said that the suicide rate was eight times higher.

    There is a danger of extrapolating that “eight times” to larger and different populations. Ms. Ryan does not mention the use of a control group with the same demographics. So my guess is that she is comparing these 244 young people to a national norm. There is nothing wrong with that but it should at least be mentioned.

    As a serious scholar I would want to know if these subjects shared any common traits other than GLBT (east coast for LGBT). For instance, if they came from the same community some other factor may have played a role. Two copy-cat suicide attempts within a close knit group, for instance, would more than double the instances in this small a sampling.

    So no, Nancy, it isn’t that I think a small sampling is useless for a scientific study. But at best, in this case, it suggests the need for further study with a much broader sampling. As for Sigmund Freud’s studies; those were case studies. They did not pretend to provide statistical probabilities.

    I have no doubt that gay youth are much more at risk than the general population. But Ms. Ryan’s study is hardly groundbreaking or newsworthy.

  • jim

    Roboguy: Yes they are. Anyone who can’t see how much more value a living human being is than an invisible friend is mentally ill.

  • http://discover Aaron

    I agree with the report. As a Gay adult and 41 years old I was rejected by my family and it caused huge emotional, physical and mental anquish. I tried to commit suicide multiple time and was very into the drug scene and alcohol MY friends disowned me except for one was bullied in school. But hey now I am a 41 years old retired firefighter who is gay and I have been decorated to the hilt. I have a great partner of 16 years and life is good. My mom now accepts us and I still have that 1 good friend. For all of those who think this report is ignorant look in the mirror. All hate kills no matter what it is and if you hate you will eventually be responsibly for someones death. Try being differant for 1 day you couldn’t handle it. try writing left or right handed just for a day. You will explode inside. Now think of being gay I dare you

  • Rachel

    I am a very religious person, and I find it morally disgusting that people would reject someone due to their sexual orientation hinding behind the guise of religion. Get over yourself, be honest, and admit that you are prejudice for all of our sakes!

  • Rachel

    Oh and for the recod despite that fact that I am religious I still have many close frinds who are gay, lesbian and bi-sexual.

  • Ronald R.

    The suicide rate among gays is measureably higher. Religion-caused hate is epidemic, just look around you in the media, in families, everywhere. There are protests at gay events. Protests at churches were not seen widely in this country until Prop 8. The “We hate you because you exist” speech is all around us, it’s undeniable. So don’t paint yourselves as nice people. You’re NOT. The cadavers are still piling up. It’s insidious. And don’t think those words don’t affect others. Think Matthew Shepard here.

  • http://baltimore21201.wordpress.com/ Dana C. LaRocca

    I share the concern for GLBT youth and I believe that we need to address the issues of depression and suicide through direct action in our communities. Frankly, I think that organizations like “Bash Back” and “Act Up” do more to support our youth than academia can dream of doing.

    Though I am confident that social worker Caitlin Ryan’s research is well intended and well funded it falls short in intellectual rigor. It is intellectually dishonest to rubber stamp it merely because it agrees with our opinions. That is foolish and silly.

    That is not science.

  • Frank

    To Dana C. LaRocca,

    Organizations like “Act Up” and “Bash Back” are effective precisely because they teach GLBT youth that they have a right to defend themselves even if they are gay. The prevailing religious and social environment with its millennia bias against gays does all it can to deny them that right.

  • MikeD

    There isn’t a specific word for a person who is attracted to long legs, or large breasts, a certain hair colour or ethnicity. The fact that there are so many words to describe someone who is attracted to their gender is a clear symptom of destructive prejudice. Having the distinctions of gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc… are not socially helpful for anyone.

    From the religious perspective, Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, his response was love (in the sense where love is a general respect for humanity). Jesus is supposed to be the embodiment of God, he helped anyone who needed help regardless of their life choices and background. That is not at all consistent with the church of today. Things have improved but we have a long way to go still.


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