Sep 142015
 

A cluster of studies came out this week looking at different aspects of mental health for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Rather than do a deep dive on each one I thought it’d be fun to do a birds eye view of all of them and talk about the results as a group. Ready?

Why look at mental health in lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB/GLB) people at all, and why might their health be different from their straight peers? Because of minority stress! If you’re a long time reader of the blog that term may sound familiar. Minority stress is the concept that solely by being a minority in a culture you have a higher level of stress. That stress is even worse when you’re a minority that is discriminated against. It’s also worse if you are a member of multiple minorities. Stress is associated with certain mental illnesses, including eating disorders, substance use/abuse, depression, and anxiety. Stress also makes it harder to cope with life’s everyday events.

So what about these studies?

Study #1 looked at disordered eating patterns in young women and compared that eating between gay, bisexual, and straight men and women. The researchers didn’t look at diagnoses or treatments of eating disorders directly. Instead, they screened patients in a primary care clinic for eating patterns and thoughts about eating that are associated with eating disorders. The researchers found that gay and bisexual men were at higher risk for disordered eating than heterosexual men. Among women, bisexual women were at higher risk for disordered eating than both lesbian and straight women.

Study #2 looked at both mental and physical health in LGB and heterosexual people seeking treatment for substance use. They found that gay and bisexual men and women were more likely to have a psychiatric diagnosis (in addition to substance use) than their heterosexual peers. Gay and bisexual men and women were also more likely to have psychiatric prescription medications. Gay/bisexual men and bisexual women, but not lesbian women, were more likely to be receiving psychotherapy and were more likely to have physical health problems and to be using health care services. Anywhere from 1/2 to 3/4 of LGB people seeking substance abuse treatment have had other psychiatric diagnoses, indicating that there is a potential need for additional care beyond substance abuse treatment in LGB people.

Study #3 examined the effects of domestic violence in same sex and opposite sex couples. The researchers found that domestic violence in same sex couples resulted in more symptoms of depression and physical violence than in opposite sex couples.

What does all this mean, and how do we think about this?

First, these studies add to the research that shows that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are at higher risk for mental health difficulties than their heterosexual peers. However, they add an interesting wrinkle. Gay and bisexual men and bisexual women may be at higher risk than lesbian women. We’ll have to wait for more studies to come out to see if this is a true difference, or just a random quirk of the data. But it’s an interesting thought.

And secondly, that people in same-sex relationships may fare worse when domestic violence happens than people in opposite-sex relationships. This is likely because of the lack of resources and public awareness around domestic violence than anything to do with the relationship itself.

What do you think about these studies?

Aug 172015
 

715px-715px-Sunbedoff_largeA new study finds that gay and bisexual men use tanning beds more frequently than straight men. The use of tanning beds is strongly associated with skin cancers, especially melanoma (the most dead form of skin cancers).

Campaigns to dissuade people from using tanning beds usually target straight women, as they’ve been the most frequent users of tanning beds. These new data show that gay and bisexual men use tanning beds just as frequently as straight women. Lesbian and bisexual women were less likely than straight women to use tanning beds.

Tanning beds should not be used for cosmetic reasons. While many perceive a tan as “healthy” or enjoy the experience of tanning, tanning damages the skin and raises the risk of skin cancer.

Want to read the study for yourself? It’s publicly available!

Aug 102015
 

Rainbow ribbon for LGBT+ cancer awarenessGender and sexual minority health isn’t just about HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, and mental health. It’s also about cancers, and our exposures to risk factors for cancers. Why? Because everyone can get cancer, and we all need both preventative and therapeutic health care.

Cancer is not just one disease, which is why it’s been so difficult to “cure”. Cancer is when a cell mutates and grows out of control. The cells begin to invade other tissues, and can spread throughout the body. Any cell can become cancerous. And different cancers are caused by different things and have different treatments.

A recent paper, published online ahead of print, looked at the data surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual (LGBT) populations and cancers. They specifically looked at cancers which may be more common in LGBT communities: anal, breast, cervical, colon/rectal, endometrial, lung, and prostate cancers.

Why might these cancers be more common in LGBT communities? Perhaps because of higher levels of risk factors like obesity, smoking, and certain infections. Or perhaps because of lack of preventative health care.

But what do the data say? What data do we even have? So far it looks like we don’t have much information. Most studies about cancers don’t ask about sexual orientation or gender identity. But let’s take the data one cancer type at a time, just as the paper did…

Anal cancer is a rare cancer of the anus. It’s primarily associated with HIV infection and HPV infection. Men who have sex with men, because they are at high risk for HIV and HPV infections, are at higher risk for anal cancer. The risks for women and transgender people are unknown. The best prevention for anal cancer is the HPV vaccine and consistent use of condoms to prevent HPV and HIV infections. Screening, to catch cancers in their most treatable state, can be done through the anal pap test. However there are no guidelines for the anal pap test and its value as a screening tool is uncertain. Treatment for anal cancer can impact not only general quality of life for survivors but sexual quality of life for men who have sex with men. The effects on sexual quality of life may be under appreciated by physicians.

Breast cancer is among the most frequently diagnosed cancers in women. Unlike with anal cancer, there are no obvious risk factors beyond being a cisgender woman. There are no data on how rates of breast cancer differ between heterosexual, bisexual and lesbian women. It is thought that bisexual/lesbian women may be at higher risk of breast cancer because of high rates of smoking, alcohol use, and obesity. Lesbian/bisexual women are also less likely to carry a pregnancy. However, it’s not known if those risk factors are actually associated with higher rates of disease. There are no data on cis or trans male breast cancer. Trans women were thought to potentially be at higher risk because of the hormones they take, but data so far seem to indicate that they’re at low risk. When it comes to screening, the best screenings so far are clinical breast exams and mammography. Women who have sex with women are less likely to receive either. Once they survive a breast cancer, women who have sex with women may be at risk for sexual side effects more than heterosexual women.

Cervical cancer is a cancer that exclusively affects cisgender women, pre-op trans men and others who have a cervix. There are no data describing how the risk for cervical cancer may be different for bisexual/lesbian women and trans men. The biggest risk for cervical cancer is HPV infection. The best prevention of cervical cancer includes the HPV vaccine and the use of barriers to prevent HPV infection. For screening, pelvic exam with pap smear at a regular interval is recommended. Women who have sex with women are less likely to receive the vaccine and less likely to receive regular screenings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the same is true for trans men. This would leave both bisexual/lesbian women and trans men at higher risk for cervical cancer, and higher risk that if there is cancer it will be discovered at a later stage. No studies have been performed examining how women who have sex with women and trans men fare after a cervical cancer diagnosis.

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in both men and women. Preliminary studies indicate that lesbian, gay, and bisexual cisgender people are not being diagnosed with colon cancer more frequently than heterosexual people are. There are no data on trans people. However, LGB people are more likely to have risk factors like obesity, smoking, and alcohol use. On the whole, they are also less likely to receive screenings for colon cancer. The exception is gay and bisexual men, who receive colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy more often than heterosexual men (the authors theorize that this may be because colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy are used to diagnose difficulties with receptive anal sex). No studies have compared side effects in LGBT survivors. However, clinicians should advise men who have receptive anal sex that treatment may impact their sexual life.

Endometrial cancer is a cancer of the lining of the uterus, which can affect any individual with that lining. There are no data on lesbian, bisexual, or transgender populations nor are there recommendations for prevention and screening for endometrial cancer. Survivor outcomes are similarly murky. However the authors note that lesbian and bisexual women, because of stigma, may seek medical care later than heterosexual women. The authors advocate for a welcoming LGBT environment for patients to facilitate early detection and treatment.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide and is primarily caused by tobacco smoke. There are no direct studies of lung cancer in LGBT populations, but LGBT people are far more likely than heterosexual/cisgender people to smoke. LGBT people, as a whole, are thus at higher risk for lung cancer. While an annual screening (via low-dose CT scan) is recommended for some long term smokers, the guidelines were not intended for LGBT patients and may not be appropriate. Outcomes and side effects are unknown for LGBT people.

Prostate cancer is a cancer that exclusively affects cisgender men and transgender women (regardless of surgical status — the prostate is not removed in surgery). HIV+ men may be at lower risk for prostate cancer, though that may be an artifact of testing. The risk of prostate cancer for trans women is unknown, but is not zero. The screening test for prostate cancer, prostate specific antigen (PSA), is of limited value, but it appears that there are no differences in screening based on sexual orientation. Treatment for prostate cancer often has sexual and bowel side effects which may affect men who have sex with men differently (particularly men who prefer receptive anal sex).

Astute readers may have noticed a trend: There are not enough data. This is a huge problem in gender and sexual minority health. We just do not know enough, particularly about topics other than HIV. While some research is going on now to try to tackle these issues, it will be a while before those results come out and get validated.

So in the mean time, what is an LGBT+ person, worried about cancer, to do? You have options! You can…

  • Find a medical provider whom you feel safe and comfortable with, and make sure you come out to them. Ask them about screening schedules for you, given your own set of risk factors. Screenings will not prevent cancer, but they will allow your physician to detect cancer in its earliest, most curable stages and could save your life.
  • Exercise, achieve/maintain as healthy a weight as you can, and eat a varied diet. All of these things will help reduce your risks.
  • Quit smoking, if you currently use tobacco. Don’t start to use tobacco if you currently don’t. All forms of tobacco cause cancer, including chew and snuff.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Drinking a lot is associated with higher rates of some cancers.
  • Be HPV-aware, and get vaccinated if you can. Use barriers in sexual encounters to prevent both HPV and HIV infection.
  • Be as familiar with your body as you can, so that you can detect changes and notify your physician.

Want to read the study for yourself? It’s publicly available!

Mar 162015
 

170px-Rod_of_Asclepius2.svgBeing a gender or sexual minority (GSM) is not only difficulty and tricky for patients — it can also be a challenge for medical providers. Medicine can be a particularly conservative field, depending on location and specialty. Lives are, after all, often at stake.

Despite recent advances it appears that some 40% of lesbian, gay and bisexual medical students are hiding their sexual minority status in medical school. Among transgender medical students, 70% were hiding their identity. All because of fear of discrimination.

That fear has been, and still is, warranted. From medical providers transitioning and losing their practices, to medical students losing their residency slots, to LGBT health student organizations fighting to exist, LGBT providers face similar discrimination as our patients.  Similar happens for other gender and sexual minority health care providers, though we lack statistics. At a meeting of kink-identified mental health care providers, one attendee noted a high level of vulnerability for the clinicians. Being “outed” could lose them their jobs or even trigger legal action.

To some extent, discretion among health care providers is warranted. Most people don’t want to know about their clinician’s (or coworker’s) personal lives. And most GSM providers don’t actually want to share those most intimate details. It’s where the line is that can be distressing — how much information is too much? Can I discuss my wife when other women clinicians are discussing their husbands? How exactly do you notify your fellow clinicians or patients about a change in gender pronouns or name? How can a clinician use information gained from intimate encounters to help patients, without revealing too much? It’s a balance we constantly seek. Sometimes mentors are there and can help. Other times we figure it out as we go along.

Yet we bring a lot to the table, as minorities. Like many racial and ethnic minorities, there are pressures and issues that affect GSM people more than the majorities. We bring that knowledge with us to the research we choose to perform, the communities we participate in, and each and every patient encounter.

We as clinicians and future clinicians need to have the support in order to be appropriately open about our gender and sexual minority status. Our patients and clients must know they can be safe and honest with us so they can receive the most complete and respectful care possible.

Some progress has been made already. There’s an association for LGBT medical professionals. There’s an association for kink psychological research. There’s an association for transgender health. All of which allow student members and provide mentoring. Many other organizations exist too. Some US medical schools are working with their students to provide a safe and welcoming environment where these issues can be explored. The American Association of Medical Colleges recently launched a program to enhance education surrounding LGBT and intersex health care. The American Medical Association also has an LGBT Advisory committee.

I’m proud to say that my medical school has been accepting and supportive of its gender and sexual minority patients, and that clinics in the area of my medical school are seeking to expand their care to be more inclusive of LGBT patients. Support exists for both those seeking medical care, and those seeking to provide that care. It’s only the beginning.

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).