Jun 262017
 

All lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB)* people are not the same. I’ve long been an advocate that it’s not “the LGB community”, it’s “the LGB communities“. Even within just the lesbian “community”, there are subgroups. Everyone has different experiences, needs, and expectations. There is no one universal experience, and no monolithic community.

The easiest example is gender nonconformity. Within lesbian and female bisexual communities, for example, there are women who dress and act more masculine (“butch”) and women who dress and act more feminine (“femme”). The same is true for gay and male bisexual communities. Another example is “coming out”. While it’s a common experience, it’s not universal. I myself never had to “come out” to my family because my family was very accepting.. Bisexual people who date/marry opposite sex partners may also not choose to come out.

Despite differences, we know that there are some generalities about LGB communities. We know that LGB people, as a whole, have higher rates of depression than their straight peers. But we also know that not all LGB people have depression. Could gender nonconformity be the key?

Portrait of a boy, c. 1800. A boy who looked like this might well end up with depression after being teased and bullied.

Portrait of a boy, c. 1800. A boy who looked like this might well end up with depression after being teased and bullied.

Today’s study looked at depression, gender nonconformity, and LGB status among young adults in the United States. They used data from the Add Health study. Add Health was a study that started in schools and continued through until the participants were up to 32. The participants in today’s study were age 18-32. 86.7-93.1% of the sample (women-men range) were heterosexual. The rest were mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly lesbian/gay, or lesbian/gay. Depression was measured with a validated scale. Sexual orientation was rated on a Kinsey-type scale. And gender non-conformity was measured with a scale of activities, including team sports, religious activities, video game use, housework, and social activities.

What were the results?

At first, it looked like all the non-heterosexual participants were at higher risk for depression. Bisexuals had more depressive symptoms than lesbian and gay participants. However once they controlled for gender nonconformity, lesbians and gay men did not have more depression symptoms than heterosexuals. Bisexual participants continued to have higher rates of depression and controlling for gender nonconformity.

Who tended to be gender nonconforming? Young men were more nonconforming than young women. Lesbians and gay men were more nonconforming than all the bisexuals (including mostly straight and mostly gay), who were about as nonconforming as straight participants.

And the depression? Young women were more depressed than men. Black, Latino, and Asian participants were also more likely to have it. The same was true for those with low parental education levels and families with financial problems. Participants who were gender nonconforming reported more symptoms of depression than those who were conforming.

Lastly, the researchers looked at whether that depression held over time. Gender nonconformity did not predict depression in the future. Bisexuals, lesbian, and gay young adults were also not at risk for future depression; only depression in the moment. However individuals who identified as mostly heterosexual continued to have higher rates of symptoms. Individuals who are Black, Asian, female, had low parental education levels, or severe family financial problems, continued to have depression symptoms.

What does this really mean?

LGB young adults as a whole continue to be at higher risk for depression. However, that risk appears to mostly be an effect of gender nonconformity as a young adult. Those who are gender nonconforming as young adults are at higher risk for depression as young adults, but six years later that risk goes away. Why? Gender nonconformity is visible, and likely to result in the individual being a target for discrimination, which can result in depression. But then why doesn’t it continue six years later? Either the discrimination reduces (teenagers can be notoriously mean to each other), or the individuals develop coping skills or move into a more accepting community.

Additionally, bisexuals and mostly heterosexuals are at higher risk for depression than lesbians and gay men. Why? Well, it might be because they can “hide” and look heterosexual. That means they don’t need to “come out”. But it also means there’s less acceptance and acknowledgement of their orientation. That could have big effects.

What do we do with this information?

First, we can keep an eye out for the gender nonconforming young adults in our communities, whether they’re straight, bisexual, gay, or somewhere in between. We can support them when they need it. And second, we can create a more accepting environment. The less discrimination and the more acceptance of gender nonconformity, the less depression we are likely to see. We can make the world a positive place to be for everyone.

Want to read the abstract for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

*: Please note that although today’s article does not use the word “cis” throughout despite the implication. The study in question examined cis individuals. However in my language, I use “men/male” and “women/female” to refer to gender identity, not biologic sex. So the general statements I make are intended to be inclusive of both cis and trans individuals, who can be lesbian/gay, bisexual, or straight.

Mar 062017
 

Lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) high school students are at higher risk for suicide than their heterosexual peers. The reasons are complex. The facts are simple. In the US in 2015, 29% of LGB youth report attempting suicide in the past year compared to 6% of their heterosexual peers. LGB youth also have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and non-suicidal self injury. Why? One of the main culprits is stigma.

It is still not a “good” or “normal” thing to be LGB in the United States. LGB people are very much in the minority. They are targets for discrimination and violence. All of this is part of stigma. There are different types of stigma. Structural stigma is policy, rule, and law based discrimination. Marriage inequality was one of the most talked-about forms of structural stigma.

If poor mental health outcomes like suicide attempts are partially because of stigma then we would expect changes in those mental health outcomes after a change in stigma. In other words, if marriage inequality is one way that society says “LGB is bad” and drives adolescents toward suicide, then when marriage inequality goes away adolescents should have fewer suicide attempts.

And that’s what the researchers in this week’s study looked at. They asked: Did youth suicide attempts go down after legalization of marriage equality?

The Study

The researchers looked at data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS). The YRBSS is a survey done by the Centers for Disease Control every 2 years. It’s conducted in 47 of the 50 United States.Among other things, the YRBSS asks about number of suicide attempts in the past 12 months.

They looked at data from 1999-2015. 2015 is before country-wide marriage equality. So instead of looking at national data, they looked state by state. They compared suicide attempts before and after legalization in that state. They also compared suicide attempts in states that legalized and in states that did not legalize in the same year.

In addition they compared straight suicide attempts to LGB suicide attempts. Only 25 states were actually asking about sexual orientation by 2015, so this part of the study was limited.

In total there were data from roughly 760 thousand adolescents. 12.7% of students in states that asked about sexual orientation identified as LGB. 2.3% were gay/lesbian, 6.4% were bisexual, and 4% were uncertain.

8.6% of all students had attempted suicide in the past year before marriage equality. That dropped by 0.6% to 8.0% after same-sex marriage was legalized. If we extrapolate out, that’s roughly 134 thousand adolescents who did not attempt suicide after marriage equality.

For LGB students the difference was even more impressive. Out of 231 thousand adolescents, 28.5% had attempted suicide in the past year prior to legalization. After marriage equality it dropped by 4.0% to 24.5%. That’s a relative reduction of 14%.

And for the statistically nerdy folks among us, those results were statistically significant at the p = 0.05 level.

Nice data, but what does it mean?

Here’s the bottom line. There were fewer suicide attempts in all high school students after marriage equality. This was especially true among LGB youth, but the effect was seen in all youth.

There’s a very important lesson in these results. Legal policies and the message those policies convey have very real effects on health. And it’s not just as simple as policies like mandatory vaccination and the resulting drop in infectious diseases. Denying same sex couples the right to marry and all the legal protections associated with marriage sends the message that LGB people are inferior. And our youth hear that. It has very real effects on their health. It’s behooves us as a society to examine other policies like employment and school protections to see if they send the same message.

From a personal perspective, these results are not surprising. While the Defense of Marriage Act was still law, even as a teenager I was very aware of what that meant for my legal rights. I knew about, and was distressed by, the lack of hospital visitation rights and insurance coverage. As an adult the knowledge that I have the legal right to make medical decisions for my wife without question is immensely comforting. We have a long way to go on other matters, but this one small step makes a difference.

Lastly, never underestimate suicidality. If you or someone you love is in crisis, the Trevor Project is an LGBT friendly suicide hotline for youth. Adults who need assistance can find the right hotline for them here.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.

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 312015
 
Psy_II

The Greek letter Psy is often used to symbolize psychology or the APA.

The American Psychological Association has released a 55-page document detailing guidelines for psychologists treating transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. To my knowledge, this is the first such document the APA has published. It’s a huge milestone in trans mental health care.

APA guidelines provide standards for both trainees and practicing psychologists on the expected conduct of psychologists. They’re used in both introductory and continuing education.

In this document, the APA lists out the following guidelines (note that TGNC stands for “transgender/gender non-conforming”):

  1. Psychologists understand that gender is a non‐binary construct that allows for a range of gender identities and that a person’s gender identity may not align with sex assigned at birth.
  2. Psychologists understand that gender identity and sexual orientation are distinct but interrelated constructs.
  3. Psychologists seek to understand how gender identity intersects with the other cultural identities of TGNC people.
  4. Psychologists are aware of how their attitudes about and knowledge of gender identity and gender expression may affect the quality of care they provide to TGNC people and their families.
  5. Psychologists recognize how stigma, prejudice, discrimination, and violence affect the health and well‐being of TGNC people.
  6. Psychologists strive to recognize the influence of institutional barriers on the lives of TGNC people and to assist in developing TGNC‐affirmative environments.
  7. Psychologists understand the need to promote social change that reduces the negative effects of stigma on the health and well‐being of TGNC people.
  8. Psychologists working with gender questioning and TGNC youth understand the different developmental needs of children and adolescents and that not all youth will persist in a TGNC identity into adulthood.
  9. Psychologists strive to understand both the particular challenges that TGNC elders experience and the resilience they can develop.
  10. Psychologists strive to understand how mental health concerns may or may not be related to a TGNC person’s gender identity and the psychological effects of minority stress.
  11. Psychologists recognize that TGNC people are more likely to experience positive life outcomes when they receive social support or trans‐affirmative care.
  12. Psychologists strive to understand the effects that changes in gender identity and gender expression have on the romantic and sexual relationships of TGNC people.
  13. Psychologists seek to understand how parenting and family formation among TGNC people take a variety of forms.
  14. Psychologists recognize the potential benefits of an interdisciplinary approach when providing care to TGNC people and strive to work collaboratively with other providers.
  15. Psychologists respect the welfare and rights of TGNC participants in research and strive to represent results accurately and avoid misuse or misrepresentation of findings.
  16. Psychologists seek to prepare trainees in psychology to work competently with TGNC people.
This is all excellent.
There is a history of psychologists attempting to change gender identity through conversion therapy or other coercive means. The APA’s statement, in effect, states very strongly that attempts to change gender identity should not be attempted. Instead, the APA is embracing the ethical treatment of transgender people and of affirming transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Do these guidelines mean anything for you if you’re receiving therapy? Possibly. Talk with your therapist, whether you’re trans or cis, to make sure they’ve seen the updated guidelines. If you’re receiving therapy that is not within these guidelines, consider talking with your therapist about these guidelines or seeking another therapist.
And spread the word! The document itself is publicly available as a PDF.