Research Findings: Parental, Social Acceptance of Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Teens Can Reduce Rates of Suicide, Substance Abuse

Jodi Jacobson

Research findings indicate negative parental and social attitudes contribute to higher rates of suicide and substance abuse among gay, lesbian and bisexual youth.  Support and acceptance, and even neutrality by parents, can lead to reduced rates of suicide among vulnerable teens and young adults.

Parents’ attitudes and behaviors toward their gay, lesbian, and bisexual offspring are key determinants of their children’s risks of suicide, subtance abuse and depression, according to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics.  Findings from the study were featured in a story by National Public Radio (NPR) health reporter Joe Shapiro on December 29th, 2008.

The findings dovetail with a period of raging social debate on gay rights, and suggest the large economic, social, and personal costs associated with ingrained stigma and discrimination.

As a group, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens and young adults have
higher rates of suicide and substance abuse problems than their
heterosexual peers.  The study in Pediatrics, conducted by a team of researchers led by Caitlin Ryan, director of Adolescent
Health Initiatives at the Cesar Chavez Institute at San Francisco State
University, found that rejection by one or both parents and efforts to change sexual orientation were significantly associated with higher risks of suicide and poorer health outcomes among this population.

Findings were based on an analysis of in-depth interviews and surveys conducted with 224 white and Latino
self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults, ages 21 to
25.  Interviews were coupled with quantitative methods
to measure the type and frequency of parental and caregiver reactions
to a lesbian, gay, or bisexual sexual orientation, retrospectively during adolescence. 
The researchers also included measures of 9 negative health indicators,
including mental health, substance abuse, and sexual risk.  According to the researchers:

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This study establishes a clear link between specific parental and caregiver rejecting behaviors and negative health problems in young lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults.

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.

Cultural norms also clearly played a major role: The researchers found that Latino men reported the highest number of negative family reactions to their sexual orientation in adolescence.

Researchers gauged levels of rejection by examining behaviors such as whether parents
tried to get their child to change their sexual orientation or tried
to stop them from being with other gay kids.  Conversely, those whose parents remained neutral or were supportive fared far better.  This shows, Ryan told NPR, that:

A little bit of change in rejecting behavior [by parents],
and [having parents who are] a little bit more accepting, can make a
significant difference in the child’s health and mental health.

Parents’ perceptions of their own behavior and actions did not reflect an understanding of the effects such rejections have on their children. Ryan told NPR that:

Parents thought that by trying to change them that would make them
happy, but instead it put their children at great risk. When we shared that with parents, they were shocked.

Reflecting these findings, the researchers called for educational, counseling and training support for parents and caregivers of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth.

Providers who serve this population should assess and help educate families about the impact of rejecting behaviors. Counseling families, providing anticipatory guidance, and referring families for counseling and support can help make a critical difference in helping decrease risk and increasing well-being for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth.

Similar findings have been found by other researchers.  Effie Malley, a senior prevention specialist at the federally-funded Suicide Prevention Research Center in Newton, Mass, has done her own research according to NPR and released another study this month that shows gay teens have very high rates of suicide attempts. She says parents matter — and so do peers, teachers and society.

What I’d like to see down the road is that parents and people who work with families counseling them would really take to heart Ryan and her co-authors’ research about not trying to change who the parents are or their beliefs, but just to help them to recognize the words they use and the actions that are harmful to their kids and to stop using those behaviors.

These findings underscore two further points.  The first is that sexual and reproductive health education and services that include unbiased, factual and non-stigmatizing information on sexual orientation are critical aspects of basic preventive health care–whether provided in schools, in community settings, or through other means–and must be addressed as part of the discussion on the kind of health care system we want–in the broadest sense–so that we can both prevent and mitigate the effects of stigma and discrimination on public health. 

The National Institutes of Mental Health reports that the costs of untreated depression alone in the U.S. population are astronomical.  In a 2006 analysis, Drs. Phillip Wang and Ronald Kessler of Harvard University note that:

Depression exacts economic costs totaling tens of billions of dollars
annually in the United States, mostly from lost work productivity.

To the extent that factual sexual and family life education programs remain contested and we delay implementation of effective programs, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens will be disproportionately affected and the personal and medical costs for them, and the social and economic costs for the United States, will be that much higher.

The second is that these findings could not be more relevant to the current public debate around religious fundamentalisms and evidence-based approaches to sexual health and rights.  Religious and political leaders who continue to treat sexual identities other than heterosexuality as "outside the norm" contribute to a climate in which shame, marginalization and discrimination persist in many quarters. This climate in turn raises the costs in individual lives and for the public writ large in terms of higher rates of isolation, depression, substance abuse and suicide among vulnerable children, youth, and young adults.

News Law and Policy

Pastors Fight Illinois’ Ban on ‘Gay Conversion Therapy’

Imani Gandy

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban so-called gay conversion therapy. Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans.

A group of pastors filed a lawsuit last week arguing an Illinois law that bans mental health providers from engaging in so-called gay conversion therapy unconstitutionally infringes on rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

The Illinois legislature passed the Youth Mental Health Protection Act, which went into effect on January 1. The measure bans mental health providers from engaging in sexual orientation change efforts or so-called conversion therapy with a minor.

The pastors in their lawsuit argue the enactment of the law means they are “deprived of the right to further minister to those who seek their help.”

While the pastors do not qualify as mental health providers since they are neither licensed counselors nor social workers, the pastors allege that they may be liable for consumer fraud under Section 25 of the law, which states that “no person or entity” may advertise or otherwise offer “conversion therapy” services “in a manner that represents homosexuality as a mental disease, disorder, or illness.”

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The pastors’ lawsuit seeks an order from a federal court in Illinois exempting pastoral counseling from the law. The pastors believe that “the law should not apply to pastoral counseling which informs counselees that homosexuality conduct is a sin and disorder from God’s plan for humanity,” according to a press release issued by the pastors’ attorneys.

Illinois is one of a handful of states that ban gay “conversion therapy.” Lawmakers in four states—California, Oregon, Vermont, and New Jersey—along with Washington, D.C. have passed such bans. None have been struck down as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court this year declined to take up a case challenging New Jersey’s “gay conversion therapy” ban on First Amendment grounds.

The pastors say the Illinois law is different. The complaint alleges that the Illinois statute is broader than those like it in other states because the prohibitions in the law is not limited to licensed counselors, but also apply to “any person or entity in the conduct of any trade or commerce,” which they claim affects clergy.

The pastors allege that the law is not limited to counseling minors but “prohibits offering such counseling services to any person, regardless of age.”

Aside from demanding protection for their own rights, the group of pastors asked the court for an order “protecting the rights of counselees in their congregations and others to receive pastoral counseling and teaching on the matters of homosexuality.”

“We are most concerned about young people who are seeking the right to choose their own identity,” the pastors’ attorney, John W. Mauck, said in a statement.

“This is an essential human right. However, this law undermines the dignity and integrity of those who choose a different path for their lives than politicians and activists prefer,” he continued.

“Gay conversion therapy” bans have gained traction after Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager, committed suicide following her experience with so-called conversion therapy.

Before taking her own life, Alcorn posted on Reddit that her parents had refused her request to transition to a woman.

“The[y] would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl,” she wrote of her experience with conversion therapy.

The American Psychological Association, along with a coalition of health advocacy groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers, have condemned “gay conversion therapy” as potentially harmful to young people “because they present the view that the sexual orientation of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth is a mental illness or disorder, and they often frame the inability to change one’s sexual orientation as a personal and moral failure.”

The White House in 2015 took a stance against so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth.

Attorneys for the State of Illinois have not yet responded to the pastors’ lawsuit.

News Law and Policy

Seattle Becomes Fourth U.S. City to Outlaw ‘Conversion Therapy’

Nicole Knight

The American Psychological Association has warned of risks from the so-called treatment, including depression, anxiety, self hatred, and self-destructive behavior. Major medical organizations have rejected the harmful practice.

The Seattle City Council this week banned so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth, making it the latest in a string of cities and states to outlaw the harmful and unscientific practice.

The “conversion therapy” ban passed Monday in a unanimous vote.

“Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or transgender is not an illness,” said Lorena González, the councilperson who sponsored the new ordinance, as the Stranger reported. “Nor is it something that needs a cure.”

“Conversion therapy” attempts to change a young LGBTQ person’s sexual orientation or gender identity to cisgender or “straight.” Major medical and health-care organizations, such as the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have rejected the controversial practice.

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The American Psychological Association has warned of risks from the so-called treatment, including depression, anxiety, self hatred, and self-destructive behavior.

Cincinnati, Miami Beach, and Washington, D.C. already ban “conversion therapy,” as do states including California, New Jersey, Oregon, Illinois, New York, and Vermont, Seattle officials said in a statement.

The Seattle ordinance applies to licensed providers treating youths younger than 18. Violators face fines of up to $1,000.

The city “has taken a bold step to save children’s lives, and its children have received a clear message that they were born perfect,” said Carolyn Reyes, youth policy counsel with the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR). The NCLR’s #BornPerfect campaign seeks to end “conversion therapy” nationwide by 2019 through new laws, court action, and awareness campaigns.

Although LGBTQ rights groups in Washington state had pushed for statewide legislation to outlaw “conversion therapy,” Monisha Harrell, with the LGBTQ advocacy group Equal Rights Washington, cheered the city ordinance. She said the group would redouble its efforts to enact a statewide ban.

The Obama administration last year called for an end to “conversion therapy,” throwing its support behind national legislation named for Leelah Alcorn. Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender woman who killed herself in 2014, wrote in a suicide note that religious therapists tried to force her identify as a boy, as Rewire reported.

The Republican Party this summer nearly made support for the harmful practice part of its party platform, as Time reported.

The Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins had advocated for strong language backing “conversion therapy,” but watered down his amendment after conferring Republican National Committee officials. The party finally agreed to: “We support the right of parents to determine the proper treatment or therapy, for their minor children.”


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