Feb 102013

CC BY-ND 2.0 - TjookAs a group non-heterosexual people have poorer mental health than heterosexuals do. LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) folk have higher rates of mood/anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation/attempts, and substance use. Why? The dominant theory is minority stress: simply being a minority is stressful, especially if one is a minority who faces discrimination. Higher levels of stress are associated with poorer mental health. For LGB folk, the fact that their minority status is invisible is an additional factor. Research is conflicted on whether “coming out” improves mental health or not. While coming out in a supportive environment may improve mental health, coming out in a discriminatory environment may do the opposite.

Before I jump into the actual study, a little background on stress. Stress that comes from a psychological or social source is called psychosocial stress. Like all stress, it isn’t just psychological. There’s a biological component too! In the laboratory, there are at least two different ways of measuring stress. The first, and easier, is through cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone made from cholesterol that is released by the adrenal glands. It’s a small, non-polar molecule, so it passes right cellular membranes into every cell in the body. Because of this, cortisol can be measured in saliva, making its collection easer, cheaper, and less riskier in research than other measures. Cortisol also has a cyclical pattern; it’s lowest in the morning but rises in concentration through the day. Cortisol measurement is not without its problems. Levels of cortisol, and the reactivity of cortisol concentration to stress, varies between men and women, and between women of varying menstrual cycles and oral contractive use. It’s also worth noting that cross-sex hormones may be a confounding variable for cortisol testing, which is why this study did not include transgender people.

Another way of measuring stress requires a blood sample and lots of blood tests. Stress affects many different body systems. Everything from sex hormones to triglycerides to insulin can be affected, so those levels can be used to help detect stress levels in participants. Non-blood tests such a blood pressure may also be used. These non-cortisol factors were referred to as “allostatic load” (AL) in this study. AL broadly refers to the cumulative biological effects of being ready for “fight or flight“, or in other words, stress.

So what about this study in particular? This study has two goals:

  1. Compare the stress levels of LGB people with heterosexual people
  2. Compare the stress levels of “closeted” LGB people with “out” LGB people.

Participants were 87 people, roughly evenly divided between lesbian/bisexual women, heterosexual women, gay/bisexual men, and heterosexual men. The researchers measured a variety of demographics including age, race, sex, occupational status, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, substance use, religion, and family. They measured sexual orientation with the Klein scale, and asked about disclosure status (i.e., whether participants were “out” or not). Psychiatric variables included perceived chronic stress, anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, burnout symptoms, and conscientiousness. Conscientiousness is a personality trait that has been found to be a confounding variable in these kinds of studies. Biological variables were salivary cortisol, measured three times a day to track cortisol’s daily cycle, and allostatic load, as I described above.

And what did they find? There were few statistically significant differences between the groups; only sexual orientation and oral contraceptive use were different. That’s important! Any differences between groups would be a confounding variable. They also verified some expected results. For example, that anxiety symptoms are associated with depression and burnout symptoms, and that elevated cortisol levels were correlated with burnout.

First the researchers reported their results for comparing LGB folk to heterosexual folk (goal #1). They found that gay/bisexual male participants had more depression symptoms than the heterosexual male participants. In contrast, their lesbian/bisexual women participants had fewer depression symptoms than the heterosexual female participants. They also found that allostatic load levels were lower in gay/bisexual men than in heterosexual men. They found no other differences between their LGB participants and their heterosexual participants.

Second the researchers reported their results for comparing out LGB folk to closeted LGB folk (goal #2). In this case, they did not separate by sex or orientation. Out LGB people had fewer anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, burnout symptoms, and lower cortisol levels than closeted LGB folk did. No other differences were detected.

Every study has its limitations. This study was no different. Limitations and potential confounds included:

  • Combining homosexuals and bisexuals into one group for analysis. While some issues overlap, bisexuals can face different stressors than homosexuals do (e.g., bisexual folk report facing discrimination from both the gay and straight communities where gay folk don’t; ).
  • Relatively small sample size may have made accurately detecting statistical significance difficult.
  • Their sample was from the Montéal area, an area that has been called “one of the most gay-friendly places on Earth.” Results may have been different in a less tolerant area. This means that results from this study can’t necessarily be applied to people in other areas (e.g., Uganda, the American South).
  • Both age and conscientiousness were found to be confounding variables.
  • Variables like gender presentation (e.g., butch vs femme lesbians) were not considered. They could affect how much active discrimination an individual faces and thus might affect their stress load. Other variables, such a family acceptance, were also not considered.

All of this is interesting, but what does this mean? If we interpret these results as true, then there are some interesting dynamics at play. LGB people who are out of the closet have better psychiatric health than closeted LGB people. However, closeted LGB people don’t seem to be at a disadvantage when it comes to the physical effects of stress. As for comparing heterosexuals with non-heterosexuals, gay/bisexual men seem to have poorer mental health than heterosexuals, who have poorer mental health than lesbian/bisexual women. Coming from an American viewpoint, it seems to me that that might be explained by the cultural acceptance of lesbian/bisexual women and rejection of gay/bisexual men. I don’t know how true that is in Canada, though. Do the results support the minority stress hypothesis? Somewhat, but only for the out/closeted comparison. The heterosexual/LGB comparison results partially support minority stress and partially don’t.

I think these results should be interpreted with a large grain of salt. I don’t think it’s justifiable to make conclusions about all LGB people from this one study. These results are curious, certainly. There are factors at play which bear greater examination (e.g., why don’t closeted LGB people show higher cortisol and AL levels?). I’m curious to see what a study replication in a different area and more participants would show.

Abstract. Full text (PDF).

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