Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences
Many of the issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity remain controversial among researchers, but there is general agreement on the observation at the heart of Part Two: lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) subpopulations are at higher risk, compared to the general population, of numerous mental health problems. Less certain are the causes of that increased risk and thus the social and clinical approaches that may help to ameliorate it. In this part we review some of the research documenting the increased risk, focusing on papers that are data-based with sound methodology, and that are widely cited in the scientific literature.
A robust and growing body of research examines the relationships between sexuality or sexual behaviors and mental health status. The first half of this part discusses the associations of sexual identities or behaviors with psychiatric disorders (such as mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and adjustment disorders), suicide, and intimate partner violence. The second half explores the reasons for the elevated risks of these outcomes among non-heterosexual and transgender populations, and considers what social science research can tell us about one of the most prevalent ways of explaining these risks, the social stress model. As we will see, social stressors such as harassment and stigma likely explain some but not all of the elevated mental health risks for these populations. More research is needed to understand the causes of and potential solutions for these important clinical and public health issues.
We turn first to the evidence for the statistical links between sexual identities or behaviors and mental health outcomes. Before summarizing the relevant research, we should mention the criteria used in selecting the studies reviewed. In an attempt to distill overall findings of a large body of research, each section begins by summarizing the most extensive and reliable meta-analyses — papers that compile and analyze the statistical data from the published research literature. For some areas of research, no comprehensive meta-analyses have been conducted, and in these areas we rely on review articles that summarize the research literature without going into quantitative analyses of published data. In addition to reporting these summaries, we also discuss a few select studies that are of particular value because of their methodology, sample size, controls for confounding factors, or ways in which concepts such as heterosexuality or homosexuality are operationalized; and we discuss key studies published after the meta-analyses or review articles were published.
As we showed in Part One, explaining the exact biological and psychological origins of sexual desires and behaviors is a difficult scientific task, one that has not yet been and may never be satisfactorily completed. However, researchers can study the correlations between sexual behavior, attraction, or identity and mental health outcomes, though there may be — and often are found to be — differences between how sexual behavior, attraction, and identity relate to particular mental health outcomes. Understanding the scope of the health challenges faced by individuals who engage in particular sexual behaviors or experience certain sexual attractions is a necessary step in providing these individuals with the care they need.
In a 2008 meta-analysis of research on mental health outcomes for non-heterosexuals, University College London professor of psychiatry Michael King and colleagues concluded that gays, lesbians, and bisexuals face “higher risk of suicidal behaviour, mental disorder and substance misuse and dependence than heterosexual people.” This survey of the literature examined papers published between January 1966 and April 2005 with data from 214,344 heterosexual and 11,971 non-heterosexual individuals. The large sample size allowed the authors to generate estimates that are highly reliable, as indicated by the relatively small confidence intervals.
Compiling the risk ratios found in these papers, the authors estimated that lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals had a 2.47 times higher lifetime risk than heterosexuals for suicide attempts, that they were about twice as likely to experience depression over a twelve-month period, and approximately 1.5 times as likely to experience anxiety disorders. Both non-heterosexual men and women were found to be at an elevated risk for substance abuse problems (1.51 times as likely), with the risk for non-heterosexual women especially high — 3.42 times higher than for heterosexual women. Non-heterosexual men, on the other hand, were at a particularly high risk for suicide attempts: while non-heterosexual men and women together were at a 2.47 times greater risk of suicide attempts over their lifetimes, non-heterosexual men were found to be at a 4.28 times greater risk.
These findings have been replicated in other studies, both in the United States and internationally, confirming a consistent and alarming pattern. However, there is considerable variation in the estimates of the increased risks of various mental health problems, depending on how researchers define terms such as “homosexual” or “non-heterosexual.” The findings from a 2010 study by Northern Illinois University professor of nursing and health studies Wendy Bostwick and colleagues examined associations of sexual orientation with mood and anxiety disorders among men and women who either identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, or who reported engaging in same-sex sexual behavior, or who reported feeling same-sex attractions. The study employed a large, U.S.-based random population sample, using data collected from the 2004–2005 wave of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, which was based on 34,653 interviews. In its sample, 1.4% of respondents identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; 3.4% reported some lifetime same-sex sexual behavior; and 5.8% reported non-heterosexual attractions.
Women who identified as lesbian, bisexual, or “not sure” reported higher rates of lifetime mood disorders than women who identified as heterosexual: the prevalence was 44.4% in lesbians, 58.7% in bisexuals, and 36.5% in women unsure of their sexual identity, as compared to 30.5% in heterosexuals. A similar pattern was found for anxiety disorders, with bisexual women experiencing the highest prevalence, followed by lesbians and those unsure, and heterosexual women experiencing the lowest prevalence. Examining the data for women with different sexual behavior or sexual attraction (rather than identity), those reporting sexual behavior with or attractions to both men and women had a higher rate of lifetime disorders than women who reported exclusively heterosexual or homosexual behaviors or attractions, and women reporting exclusive same-sex sexual behavior or exclusive same-sex attraction in fact had the lowest rates of lifetime mood and anxiety disorders.
Men who identified as gay had more than double the prevalence of lifetime mood disorders compared to men who identified as heterosexual (42.3% vs. 19.8%), and more than double the rate of any lifetime anxiety disorder (41.2% vs. 18.6%), while those who identified as bisexual had a slightly lower prevalence of mood disorders (36.9%) and anxiety disorders (38.7%) than gay men. When looking at sexual attraction or behavior for men, those who reported sexual attraction to “mostly males” or sexual behavior with “both females and males” had the highest prevalence of lifetime mood disorders and anxiety disorders compared to other groups, while those reporting exclusively heterosexual attraction or behavior had the lowest prevalence of any group.
Other studies have found that non-heterosexual populations are at a higher risk of physical health problems in addition to mental health problems. A 2007 study by UCLA professor of epidemiology Susan Cochran and colleagues examined data from the California Quality of Life Survey of 2,272 adults to assess links between sexual orientation and self-reported physical health status, health conditions, and disability, as well as psychological distress among lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and those they classified as “homosexually experienced heterosexual individuals.” While the study, like most, was limited by the use of self-reporting of health conditions, it had several strengths: it studied a population-based sample; it separately measured identity and behavioral dimensions of sexual orientation; and it controlled for race (ethnicity), education, relationship status, and family income, among other factors.
While the authors of this study found a number of health conditions that appeared to have elevated prevalence among non-heterosexuals, after adjusting for demographic factors that are potential confounders the only group with significantly greater prevalence of non-HIV physical health conditions was bisexual women, who were more likely to have health problems than heterosexual women. Consistent with the 2010 study by Bostwick and colleagues, higher rates of psychological stress were reported by lesbians, bisexual women, gay men, and homosexually experienced heterosexual men, both before and after adjusting for demographic confounding. Among men, self-identified gay and homosexually experienced heterosexual respondents reported the highest rates of several health problems.
Using the same California Quality of Life Survey, a 2009 study by UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences Christine Grella and colleagues (including Cochran) examined the relationship between sexual orientation and receiving treatment for substance use or mental disorders. They used a population-based sample, with sexual minorities oversampled to provide more statistical power to detect group differences. The usage of treatment was classified according to whether or not respondents reported receiving treatment in the preceding twelve months for “emotional, mental health, alcohol or other drug problems.” Sexual orientation was operationalized by a combination of behavioral history and self-identification. For example, they grouped together as “gay/bisexual” or “lesbian/bisexual” both those who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and those who had reported same-sex sexual behaviors. They found that women who were lesbian or bisexual were most likely to have received treatment, followed by men who were gay or bisexual, then heterosexual women, with heterosexual men being the least likely group to have reported receiving treatment. Overall, more than twice as many LGB individuals, compared to heterosexuals, had reported receiving treatment in the past twelve months (48.5% compared to 22.5%). The pattern was similar for men and women; 42.5% of homosexual men, compared to 17.1% of heterosexual men, had reported receiving treatment, while 55.3% of lesbian and bisexual women and 27.1% of heterosexual women reported receiving treatment. (Bostwick and colleagues had found that women with exclusively same-sex attractions and behaviors had a lower prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders compared to heterosexual women. The difference in results could be due to the fact that Grella and colleagues grouped those who identified as lesbians together with those who identified as bisexuals or who reported same-sex sexual behavior.)
A 2006 study by Columbia University psychiatry professor Theodorus Sandfort and colleagues examined a representative, population-based sample from the second Dutch National Survey of General Practice, carried out in 2001, to assess links between self-reported sexual orientation and health status among 9,511 participants, of whom 0.9% were classified as bisexual and 1.5% as gay or lesbian. To operationalize sexual orientation, the researchers asked respondents about their sexual preference on a 5-point scale: exclusively women, predominantly women, equally men and women, predominantly men, and exclusively men. Only those who reported an equal preference for men and women were classified as bisexual, while men reporting predominant preferences for women, or women reporting a predominant preference for men were classified as heterosexual. They found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents reported experiencing higher numbers of acute mental health problems and reported worse general mental health than heterosexuals. The results for physical health were mixed, however: lesbian and gay respondents reported experiencing more acute physical symptoms (such as headaches, back pain, or sore throats) over the past fourteen days, though they did not report experiencing two or more such symptoms any more than heterosexuals.
Lesbian and gay respondents were more likely to report chronic health problems, though bisexual men (that is, men who reported an equal sexual preference for men and women) were less likely to report chronic health problems and bisexual women were no more likely than heterosexual women to do so. The researchers did not find a statistically significant relationship between sexual orientation and overall physical health. After controlling for the possible confounding effects of mental health problems on the reporting of physical health problems, the researchers also found that the statistical effect of reporting a gay or lesbian sexual preference on chronic and acute physical conditions disappeared, though the effect of bisexual preference remained.
The Sandfort study defined sexual orientation in terms of preference or attraction without reference to behavior or self-identification, which makes it a challenge to compare its results to the results of studies that operationalize sexual orientation differently. For example, it is difficult to compare the findings of this study regarding bisexuals (defined as men or women who report an equal sexual preference for men and women) with the findings of other studies regarding “homosexually experienced heterosexual individuals” or those who are “unsure” of their sexual identity. As in most of these types of studies, the health assessments were self-reported, which may make the results somewhat unreliable. But this study also has several strengths: it used a large and representative sample of a country’s population, as opposed to the convenience samples that are sometimes used for these kinds of studies, and this sample included a sufficient number of gays and lesbians for their data to be treated in separate groups in the study’s statistical analyses. Only three people in the sample reported HIV infection, so this did not appear to be a potential confounding factor, though HIV could have been underreported.
In an effort to summarize findings in this area, we can cite the 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. This report is an extensive review of scientific literature citing hundreds of studies that examine the health status of LGBT populations. The authors are scientists who are well versed in these issues (although we wish there had been more involvement of experts in psychiatry). The report reviews findings on physical and mental health in childhood, adolescence, early and middle adulthood, and late adulthood. Consistent with the studies cited above, this report reviews evidence showing that, compared with heterosexual youth, LGB youth are at a higher risk of depression, as well as suicide attempts and suicidal ideation. They are also more likely to experience violence and harassment and to be homeless. LGB individuals in early or middle adulthood are more prone to mood and anxiety disorders, depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts.
The IOM report shows that, like LGB youth, LGB adults — and women in particular — appear to be likelier than heterosexuals to smoke, use or abuse alcohol, and abuse other drugs. The report cites a study that found that self-identified non-heterosexuals used mental health services more often than heterosexuals, and another that found that lesbians used mental health services at higher rates than heterosexuals.
The IOM report notes that “more research has focused on gay men and lesbians than on bisexual and transgender people.” The relatively few studies focusing on transgender populations show high rates of mental disorders, but the use of nonprobability samples and the lack of non-transgender controls call into question the validity of the studies. Although some studies have suggested that the use of hormone treatments may be associated with negative physical health outcomes among transgender populations, the report notes that the relevant research has been “limited” and that “no clinical trials on the subject have been conducted.” (Health outcomes for transgender individuals will be further discussed below in this part and also in Part Three.)
The IOM report claims that the evidence that LGBT populations have worse mental and physical health outcomes is not fully conclusive. To support this claim, the IOM report cites a 2001 study of mental health in 184 sister pairs in which one sister was lesbian and the other heterosexual. The study found no significant differences in rates of mental health problems, and found significantly higher self-esteem in the lesbian sisters. The IOM report also cites a 2003 study that found no significant differences between heterosexual and gay or bisexual men in general happiness, perceived health, and job satisfaction. Acknowledging these caveats and the studies that do not support the general trend, the vast majority of studies cited in the report point to a generally higher risk of poor mental health status in LGBT populations compared to heterosexual populations.
The association between sexual orientation and suicide has strong scientific support. This association merits particular attention, since among all the mental health risks, the increased risk of suicide is the most concerning, owing in part to the fact that the evidence is robust and consistent, and in part to the fact that suicide is so devastating and tragic for the person, family, and community. A better understanding of the risk factors for suicide could allow us, quite literally, to save lives.
Sociologist and suicide researcher Ann Haas and colleagues published an extensive review article in 2011 based on the results of a 2007 conference sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. They also examined studies reported since the 2007 conference. For the purposes of their report, the authors defined sexual orientation as “sexual self-identification, sexual behavior, and sexual attraction or fantasy.”
Haas and colleagues found the association between homosexual or bisexual orientation and suicide attempts to be well supported by data. They noted that population-based surveys of U.S. adolescents since the 1990s indicate that suicide attempts are two to seven times more likely in high school students who identify as LGB, with sexual orientation being a stronger predictor in males than females. They reviewed data from New Zealand that suggested that LGB individuals were six times more likely to have attempted suicide. They cited health-related surveys of U.S. men and Dutch men and women showing same-sex behavior linked to higher risk of suicide attempts. Studies cited in the report show that lesbian or bisexual women are likelier, on average, to experience suicidal ideation, that gay or bisexual men are more likely, on average, to attempt suicide, and that lifetime suicide attempts among non-heterosexuals are greater in men than in women.
Examining studies that looked at rates of mental disorders in relation to suicidal behavior, Haas and colleagues discussed a New Zealand study showing that gay people reporting suicide attempts had higher rates of depression, anxiety, and conduct disorder. Large-scale health surveys suggested that rates of substance abuse are up to one third higher for the LGB subpopulation. Combined worldwide studies showed up to 50% higher rates of mental disorders and substance abuse among persons self-identifying in surveys as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Lesbian or bisexual women showed higher levels of substance abuse, while gay or bisexual men had higher rates of depression and panic disorder.
Haas and colleagues also examined transgender populations, noting that scant information is available about transgender suicides but that the existing studies indicate a dramatic increased risk of completed suicide. (These findings are noted here but examined in more detail in Part Three.) A 1997 clinical study estimated elevated risks of suicide for Dutch male-to-female transsexual individuals on hormone therapy, but found no significant differences in overall mortality. A 1998 international review of 2,000 persons receiving sex-reassignment surgery identified 16 possible suicides, an “alarmingly high rate of 800 suicides for every 100,000 post-surgery transsexuals.” In a 1984 study, a clinical sample of transgender individuals requesting sex-reassignment surgery showed suicide attempt rates between 19% and 25%. And a large sample of 40,000 mostly U.S. volunteers completing an Internet survey in 2000 found transgender persons to report higher rates of suicide attempts than any group except lesbians.
Finally, the review by Haas and colleagues suggests that it is not clear which aspects of sexuality (identity, attraction, behavior) are most closely linked with the risk of suicidal behavior. The authors cite a 2010 study showing that adolescents identifying as heterosexual while reporting same-sex attraction or behavior did not have significantly higher suicide rates than other self-identified heterosexuals. They also cite the large national survey of U.S. adults conducted by Wendy Bostwick and colleagues (discussed earlier), which showed mood and anxiety disorders — key risk factors for suicidal behavior — more closely related to sexual self-identity than to behavior or attraction, especially for women.
A more recent critical review of existing studies of suicide risk and sexual orientation was presented by Austrian clinical psychologist Martin Plöderl and colleagues. This review rejects several hypotheses developed to account for the increased suicide risk among non-heterosexuals, including biases in self-reporting and failures to measure suicide attempts accurately. The review argues that methodological improvements in studies since 1997 have provided control groups, better representativeness of study samples, and more clarity in defining both suicide attempts and sexual orientation.
The review mentions a 2001 study by Ritch Savin-Williams, a Cornell University professor of developmental psychology, that reported no statistically significant difference between heterosexual and LGB youths after eliminating false-positive reports of suicide attempts and blaming a “‘suffering suicidal’ script” for leading to an over-reporting of suicidal behavior among gay youths. Plöderl and colleagues argue, however, that the Savin-Williams study’s finding that there was no statistically significant difference between the suicide rates of LGB and heterosexual youths might be attributable to the small sample size, which yielded low statistical power. The later work has not replicated this finding. Subsequent questionnaire or interview-based studies with stricter definitions of suicide attempts have found significantly increased rates of suicide attempts among non-heterosexuals. Several large-scale surveys of young people have found that the elevated risk of reported suicidal behavior increased with the severity of the attempts. Finally, according to Plöderl and colleagues, comparing results of questionnaires with clinical interviews indicates that homosexual youth are less likely to over-report suicide attempts in surveys than heterosexual youth.
Plöderl and colleagues concluded that among psychiatric patients, homosexual or bisexual populations are over-represented in “serious suicide attempts,” and that sexual orientation is one of the strongest predictors of suicide. Similarly, in nonclinical population-based studies, non-heterosexual status is found to be one of the strongest predictors of suicide attempts. The authors note:
The most exhaustive collation of published and unpublished international studies on the association of suicide attempts and sexual orientation with different methodologies has produced a very consistent picture: nearly all studies found increased incidences of self-reported suicide attempts among sexual minorities.
In acknowledging the challenges of all such research, the authors suggest that “the major problem remains as to where one draws the line between a heterosexual or non-heterosexual orientation.”
A 1999 study by Richard Herrell and colleagues analyzed 103 middle-aged male twin pairs from the Vietnam Era Twin Registry in Hines, Illinois, in which one twin, but not the other, reported having a male sex partner after the age of 18. The study adopted several measures of suicidality and controlled for potential confounding factors such as substance abuse or depression. It found a “substantially increased lifetime prevalence of suicidal symptoms” in male twins who had sex with men compared with co-twins who did not, independent of the potential confounding effects of drug and alcohol abuse. Though it is a relatively small study and relied on self-reporting for both same-sex behaviors and suicidal thoughts or behaviors, it is notable for using a probability sample (which eliminates selection bias), and for using the co-twin control method (which reduces the effects of genetics, age, race, and the like). The study looked at middle-aged men; what the implications might be for adolescents is not clear.
In a 2011 study, Robin Mathy and colleagues analyzed the impact of sexual orientation on suicide rates in Denmark during the first twelve years after the legalization of same-sex registered domestic partnerships (RDPs) in that country, using data from death certificates issued between 1990 and 2001 as well as Danish census population estimates. The researchers found that the age-adjusted suicide rate for same-sex RDP men was nearly eight times the rate for men in heterosexual marriages, and nearly twice the rate for men who had never married. For women, RDP status had a small, statistically insignificant effect on suicide mortality risk, and the authors conjectured that the impact of HIV status on the health of gay men might have contributed to this difference between the results for men and women. The study is limited by the fact that RDP status is an indirect measure of sexual orientation or behavior, and does not include those gays and lesbians who are not in a registered domestic partnership; the study also excluded individuals under the age of 18. Finally, the absolute number of individuals with current or past RDP status was relatively small, which may limit the study’s conclusions.
Professor of pediatrics Gary Remafedi and colleagues published a 1991 study that looked at 137 males age 14–21 who self-identified as gay (88%) or bisexual (12%). Remafedi and colleagues attempted, with a case-controlled approach, to examine which factors for this population were most predictive of suicide. Compared to those who did not attempt suicide, those who did were significantly more likely to label themselves and identify publicly as bisexual or homosexual at younger ages, report sexual abuse, and report illicit drug use. The authors noted that the likelihood of a suicide attempt “diminished with advancing age at the time of bisexual or homosexual self-labeling.” Specifically, “with each year’s delay in self-identification, the odds of a suicide attempt declined by more than 80%.” This study is limited by using a relatively small nonprobability sample, though the authors note that its result comports with their previous finding of an inverse relationship between psychosocial problems and the age at which one identifies as homosexual.
In a 2010 study, Plöderl and colleagues solicited self-reported suicide attempts among 1,382 Austrian adults to confirm existing evidence that homosexual and bisexual individuals are at higher risk. To sharpen the results, the authors developed more rigorous definitions of “suicide attempts” and assessed multiple dimensions of sexual orientation, distinguishing among sexual fantasies, preferred partners, self-identification, recent sexual behavior, and lifetime sexual behavior. This study found an increased risk for suicide attempts for sexual minorities along all dimensions of sexual orientation. For women, the risk increases were largest for those with homosexual behaviors; for men, they were largest for homosexual or bisexual behavior in the previous twelve months and self-identification as homosexual or bisexual. Those reporting being unsure of their identity reported the highest percentage of suicide attempts (44%), although this group was small, comprising less than 1% of participants.
A 2016 meta-analysis by University of Toronto graduate student Travis Salway Hottes and colleagues aggregated data from thirty cross-sectional studies on suicide attempts that together included 21,201 sexual minority adults. These studies used either population-based sampling or community-based sampling. Since each sampling method has its own strengths and potential biases, the researchers wanted to examine any differences in the rates of attempted suicide between the two sampling types. Of the LGB respondents to population-based surveys, 11% reported having attempted suicide at least once, compared to 4% of heterosexual respondents to these surveys. Of the LGB respondents to community-based surveys, 20% reported having attempted suicide. Statistical analysis showed that the difference in the sampling methods accounted for 33% of the variation in the suicide figures reported by the studies.
The research on sexuality and the risk of suicide suggests that those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, or those who experience same-sex attraction or engage in same-sex sexual behavior are at substantially increased risk of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and completed suicide. In the section later in Part Two on the social stress model, we will examine — and raise questions about — one set of arguments put forward to explain these findings. Given the tragic consequences of inadequate or incomplete information in these matters and its effect on public policy and clinical care, more research into the reasons for elevated suicide risk among sexual minorities is desperately needed.
Several studies have examined the differences between rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) in same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples. The research literature examines rates of IPV victimization (being subjected to violence by a partner) and rates of IPV perpetration (committing violence against a partner). In addition to physical and sexual violence, some studies also examine psychological violence, which comprises verbal attacks, threats, and similar forms of abuse. The weight of evidence indicates that the rate of intimate partner violence is significantly higher among same-sex couples.
In 2014, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine researcher Ana Buller and colleagues conducted a systematic review of 19 studies (with a meta-analysis of 17 of these studies) examining associations between intimate partner violence and health among men who have sex with men. Combining the available data, they found that the pooled lifetime prevalence of any IPV was 48% (estimates from the studies were quite heterogeneous, ranging from 32% to 82%). For IPV within the previous five years, pooled prevalence was 32% (estimates ranging from 16% to 51%). IPV victimization was associated with increased rates of substance use (pooled odds ratio of 1.9), positive HIV status (pooled odds ratio of 1.5), and increased rates of depressive symptoms (pooled odds ratio of 1.5). IPV perpetration was also associated with increased rates of substance use (pooled odds ratio of 2.0). An important limitation of this meta-analysis was that the number of studies it included was relatively small. Also, the heterogeneity of the studies’ results may undermine the precision of the meta-analysis. Further, most of the reviewed studies used convenience samples rather than probabilistic samples, and they used the word “partner” without distinguishing long-term relationships from casual encounters.
English psychologists Sabrina Nowinski and Erica Bowen conducted a 2012 review of 54 studies on the prevalence and correlates of intimate partner violence victimization among heterosexual and gay men. The studies showed rates of IPV victimization for gay men ranging from 15% to 51%. Compared to heterosexual men, the review reports, “it appears that gay men experienced more total and sexual IPV, slightly less physical IPV, and similar levels of psychological IPV.” The authors also report that according to estimates of IPV prevalence over the most recent twelve months, gay men “experienced less physical, psychological and sexual IPV” than heterosexual men, though the relative lack of twelve-month estimates may make this result unreliable. The authors note that “one of the most worrying findings is the prevalence of severe sexual coercion and abuse in male same-gender relationships,” citing a 2005 study on IPV in HIV-positive gay men. Nowinski and Bowen found positive HIV status to be associated with IPV in both gay and heterosexual relationships. An important limitation of their review is the fact that many of the same-sex IPV studies they examined were based on small convenience samples.
Catherine Finneran and Rob Stephenson of Emory University in 2012 conducted a systematic review of 28 studies examining IPV among men who have sex with men. Every study in the review estimated rates of IPV for gay men that were similar to or higher than those for all women regardless of sexual orientation. The authors conclude that “the emergent evidence reviewed here demonstrates that IPV — psychological, physical, and sexual — occurs in male-male partnerships at alarming rates.” Physical IPV victimization was reported most frequently, with rates ranging from 12% to 45%. The rate of sexual IPV victimization ranged from 5% to 31%, with 9 out of 19 studies reporting rates over 20%. Psychological IPV victimization was recorded in six studies, with rates ranging from 5% to 73%. Perpetration of physical IPV was reported in eight studies, with rates ranging from 4% to 39%. Rates of perpetration of sexual IPV ranged from 0.7% to 28%; four of the five studies reviewed reported rates of 9% or more. Only one study measured perpetration of psychological violence, and the estimated prevalence was 78%. Lack of consistent research design among the studies examined (for example, some differences regarding the exact definition of IPV, the correlates of IPV examined, and the recall periods used to measure violence) makes it impossible to calculate a pooled prevalence estimate, which would be useful given the lack of a national probability-based sample.
A 2013 study by UCLA’s Naomi Goldberg and Ilan Meyer used a large probability sample of almost 32,000 individuals from the California Health Interview Survey to assess differences in intimate partner violence between various cohorts: heterosexual; self-identified gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals; and men who have sex with men but did not identify as gay or bisexual, and women who have sex with women but did not identify as lesbian or bisexual. All three LGB groups had greater lifetime and one-year prevalence of intimate partner violence than the heterosexual group, but this difference was only statistically significant for bisexual women and gay men. Bisexual women were more likely to have experienced lifetime IPV (52% of bisexual women vs. 22% of heterosexual women and 32% of lesbians) and to have experienced IPV in the preceding year (27% of bisexuals vs. 5% of heterosexuals and 10% of lesbians). For men, all three non-heterosexual groups had higher rates of lifetime and one-year IPV, but this was only statistically significant for gay men, who were more likely to have experienced IPV over a lifetime (27% of gay men vs. 11% of heterosexual men and 19.6% of bisexual men) and over the preceding year (12% of gay men vs. 5% of heterosexual men and 9% of bisexual men). The authors also tested whether binge drinking and psychological distress could explain the higher prevalence of IPV victimization in gay men and bisexual women; controlling for these variables revealed that they did not. This study is limited by the fact that other potentially confounding psychological variables (besides drinking and distress) were not controlled for, statistically or otherwise, and may have accounted for the findings.
To estimate the prevalence of battering victimization among gay partners, AIDS-prevention researcher Gregory Greenwood and colleagues published a 2002 study based on telephone interviews with a probability-based sample of 2,881 men who have sex with men (MSM) in four cities from 1996 to 1998. Of those interviewed, 34% reported experiencing psychological or symbolic abuse, 22% reported physical abuse, and 5% reported sexual abuse. Overall, 39% reported some type of battering victimization, and 18% reported more than one type of battering in the previous five years. Men younger than 40 were significantly more likely than men over 60 to report battering violence. The authors conclude that “the prevalence of battering within the context of intimate partner relationships was very high” among their sample of men who have sex with men, and that since lifetime rates are usually higher than those for a five-year recall, “it is likely that a substantially greater number of MSM than of heterosexual men have experienced lifetime victimization.” The five-year prevalence of physical battering among this sample of urban MSM was also “significantly higher” than the annual rate of severe violence (3%) or total violence (12%) experienced in a representative sample of heterosexual women living with men, suggesting that the estimates of battering victimization for MSM in this study “are higher than or comparable to those reported for heterosexual women.” This study was limited by its use of a sample from four cities, so it is not clear how well the results generalize to non-urban settings.
The research literature for mental health outcomes in transgender individuals is more limited than the research on mental health outcomes in LGB populations. Because people identifying as transgender make up a very small proportion of the population, large population-based surveys and studies of such individuals are difficult if not impossible to conduct. Nevertheless, the limited available research strongly suggests that transgender people have increased risks of poor mental health outcomes. It appears that the rates of co-occurring substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide tend to be higher for transgender people than for LGB individuals.
In 2015, Harvard pediatrics professor and epidemiologist Sari Reisner and colleagues conducted a retrospective matched-pair cohort study of mental health outcomes for 180 transgender subjects aged 12–29 years (106 female-to-male and 74 male-to-female), matched to non-transgender controls based on gender identity. Transgender youth had an elevated risk of depression (50.6% vs. 20.6%) and anxiety (26.7% vs. 10.0%). Transgender youth also had higher risk of suicidal ideation (31.1% vs. 11.1%), suicide attempts (17.2% vs. 6.1%), and self-harm without lethal intent (16.7% vs. 4.4%) relative to the matched controls. A significantly greater proportion of transgender youth accessed inpatient mental health care (22.8% vs. 11.1%) and outpatient mental health care (45.6% vs. 16.1%) services. No statistically significant differences in mental health status were observed when comparing female-to-male transgender individuals to the male-to-female transgender individuals after adjusting for age, race/ethnicity, and hormone use.
This study had the merit of including individuals who presented to a community-based health clinic, and who thus were not identified solely as meeting the diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder in the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), and were not selected from a population of patients presenting to a clinic for treatment of gender identity issues. However, Reisner and colleagues note that their study has the limitations typically found in the retrospective chart review study design, such as incomplete documentation and variation in the quality of information recorded by medical professionals.
A report from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, a think tank for LGBT issues at the UCLA School of Law, summarized findings on suicide attempts among transgender and gender-nonconforming adults from a large national sample of over 6,000 individuals. This constitutes the largest study of transgender and gender-nonconforming adults to date, though it used a convenience sample rather than a population-based sample. (Large population-based samples are nearly impossible given the low overall prevalence in the general population of transgendered individuals.) Summarizing the major findings of this study, the authors write:
The prevalence of suicide attempts among respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, is 41 percent, which vastly exceeds the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt, and is also higher than the 10–20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide.
The authors note that “respondents who said they had received transition-related health care or wanted to have it someday were more likely to report having attempted suicide than those who said they did not want it,” however, “the survey did not provide information about the timing of reported suicide attempts in relation to receiving transition-related health care, which precluded investigation of transition-related explanations for these patterns.” The survey data suggested associations between suicide attempts, co-occurring mental health disorders, and experiences of discrimination or mistreatment, although the authors note some limitations of these outcomes: “The survey data did not allow us to determine a direct causal relationship between experiencing rejection, discrimination, victimization, or violence, and lifetime suicide attempts,” although they did find evidence that stressors interacted with mental health factors “to produce a marked vulnerability to suicidal behavior in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.”
A 2001 study by Kristen Clements-Nolle and colleagues of 392 male-to-female and 123 female-to-male transgender persons found that 62% of the male-to-female and 55% of the female-to-male transgender persons were depressed at the time of the study, and 32% of each population had attempted suicide. The authors note: “The prevalence of suicide attempts among male-to-female and female-to-male transgender persons in our study was much higher than that found in US household probability samples and a population-based sample of adult men reporting same-sex partners.”
The greater prevalence of mental health problems in LGBT subpopulations is a cause for concern, and policymakers and clinicians should strive to reduce these risks. But to know what kinds of measures will help ameliorate them we must better understand their causes. At this time, the medical and social strategies for helping non-heterosexual populations in the United States are quite limited, and this may be due in part to the relatively limited explanations for the poor mental health outcomes offered by social scientists and psychologists.
Despite the limits of the scientific understanding of why non-heterosexual subpopulations are more likely to have such poor mental health outcomes, much of the public effort to ameliorate these problems is motivated by a particular hypothesis called the social stress model. This model posits that discrimination, stigmatization, and other similar stresses contribute to poor mental health outcomes among sexual minorities. An implication of the social stress model is that reducing these stresses would ameliorate the mental health problems experienced by sexual minorities.
Sexual minorities face distinct social challenges such as stigma, overt discrimination and harassment, and, often, struggle with reconciling their sexual behaviors and identities with the norms of their families and communities. In addition, they tend to be subject to challenges similar to those of some other minority populations, arising from marginalization by or conflict with the larger part of society in ways that may adversely impact their health. Many researchers classify these various challenges under the concept of social stress and believe that social stress contributes to the generally higher rates of mental health problems among LGBT subpopulations.
In attempting to account for the mental health disparities between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, researchers occasionally refer to a social or minority stress hypothesis. However, it is more accurate to refer to a social or minority stress model, because the postulated connection between social stress and mental health is more complex and less precise than anything that could be stated as a single hypothesis. The term stress can have a number of meanings, ranging from a description of a physiological condition to a mental or emotional state of anger or anxiety to a difficult social, economic, or interpersonal situation. More questions arise when one thinks about various kinds of stressors that may disproportionately affect mental health in minority populations. We will discuss some of these aspects of the social stress model after a concise overview of the model as it has been presented in recent literature on LGBT mental health.
The social stress model attempts to explain why non-heterosexual people have, on average, higher incidences of poor mental health outcomes than the rest of the population. It does not put forth a complete explanation for the disparities between non-heterosexuals and heterosexuals, and it does not explain the mental health problems of a particular patient. Rather, it describes social factors that might directly or indirectly influence the health risks for LGBT people, which may only become apparent at a population level. Some of these factors may also influence heterosexuals, but LGBT people are probably disproportionately exposed to them.
In an influential 2003 article on the social stress model, psychiatric epidemiologist and sexual orientation law expert Ilan Meyer distinguished between distal and proximate minority stressors. Distal stressors do not depend on the individual’s “perceptions or appraisals,” and thus “can be seen as independent of personal identification with the assigned minority status.” For instance, if a man who was perceived to be gay by an employer was fired on that basis, this would be a distal stressor, since the stressful event of discrimination would have had nothing to do with whether the man actually identified as gay, but only with someone else’s attitude and perception. Distal stressors tend to reflect social circumstances rather than the individual’s reaction to those circumstances. Proximate stressors, in contrast, are more subjective and are closely related to the individual’s self-identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. An example of a proximate stressor would be when a young woman personally identifies as being a lesbian, and chooses to hide that identity from her family members out of fear of disapproval, or because of an internal sense of shame. The effects of proximate stressors such as this one are highly dependent on the individual’s self-understanding and unique social circumstances. In this section we describe the types of stressors postulated in the social stress model, starting at the distal and proceeding to the most proximate stressors, and examine some of the empirical evidence that has been offered on the links between the stressors and mental health outcomes.
Discrimination and prejudice events. Overt acts of mistreatment, ranging from violence to harassment and discrimination, are categorized together by researchers as “prejudice events.” These are thought to be significant stressors for non-heterosexual populations. Surveys of LGBT subpopulations have found that they tend to experience these kinds of prejudice events more frequently than the general population.
The available evidence indicates that prejudice events likely contribute to mental health problems. A 1999 study by UC Davis professor of psychology Gregory Herek and colleagues using survey data from 2,259 LGB individuals in Sacramento found that self-identified lesbians and gays who experienced a bias crime in the preceding five years — a crime, such as assault, theft, or vandalism, motivated by the actual or perceived sexual identity of the victim — reported significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms, traumatic stress symptoms, and anxiety than lesbians and gays who had not experienced a bias crime over that same period. Additionally, lesbians and gays who reported being the victims of bias crimes in the last five years showed significantly higher levels of depressive and traumatic stress symptoms than individuals who experienced non-bias crimes in the same period (though the two groups did not display significant differences in anxiety). Comparable significant correlations were not found for self-identified bisexuals, who constituted a much smaller portion of the survey respondents. The study also found that lesbians and gays subject to bias crimes were significantly more likely than other respondents to report feelings of vulnerability and a decreased sense of personal mastery or agency. Corroborating these findings on the harmful impact of bias crimes was a 2001 study by Northeastern University social scientist Jack McDevitt and colleagues that examined aggravated assaults using data from the Boston Police Department. They found that bias crime victims tended to experience the effects of victimization more intensely and for a longer period of time than non-bias crime victims. (The study looked at bias-motivated assaults in general, rather than restricting its analysis to assaults motivated by LGBT bias, though a substantial portion of the subjects did experience assaults motivated by their non-heterosexual status.)
Similar patterns also appear among non-heterosexual adolescents, for whom maltreatment is particularly high. In a 2011 study, University of Arizona social and behavioral scientist Stephen T. Russell and colleagues analyzed a survey of 245 young LGBT adults that retrospectively assessed school victimization due to actual or perceived LGBT status between the ages of 13 and 19. They found strong correlations between school victimization and poor mental health as young adults. Victimization was assessed by asking yes-or-no questions, such as, “During my middle or high school years, while at school, I was pushed, shoved, slapped, hit, or kicked by someone who wasn’t just kidding around,” followed by a question of how often these events were related to the respondent’s sexual identity. Respondents who reported high levels of school victimization due to their sexual identity were 2.6 times more likely to report depression as young adults and 5.6 times more likely to report that they had attempted suicide, compared to those who reported low levels of victimization. These differences were highly statistically significant, though the study is potentially limited by its use of retrospective surveys to measure incidents of victimization. A study by professor of social work Joanna Almeida and colleagues, which relied on the 2006 Boston Youth Survey (a biennial survey of high school students in Boston public schools), found that perceptions of having been victimized due to LGBT status accounted for increased symptoms of depression among LGBT students. For male LGBT students, but not females, the study also found a positive correlation between victimization and suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Differences in compensation suggest discrimination in the workplace, which can have both direct and indirect effects on mental health. M.V. Lee Badgett, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, analyzed data collected between 1989 and 1991 in the General Social Survey and found that non-heterosexual male employees received significantly lower compensation (11% to 27%) than heterosexuals, even after controlling for experience, education, occupation, and other factors. According to a 2009 review by Badgett, nine studies from the 1990s and early 2000s “consistently show that gay and bisexual men earned 10% to 32% less than heterosexual men,” and that differences in occupation cannot account for much of the wage disparity. Researchers have also found that non-heterosexual women earn more than heterosexual women, which may suggest either that patterns of discrimination differ for men and women, or that there are other factors associated with non-heterosexual behavior and self-identification in men and women influencing their respective earnings, such as a lower rate of child-rearing or being the family primary wage earner.
There is evidence that suggests that wage disparities can help explain some population-level disparities in mental health outcomes, though it is difficult to tell if differences in mental health help explain the differences in wages. A 1999 study by Craig Waldo on the relationship between workplace heterosexism — defined as negative social attitudes toward non-heterosexuals — and stress-related outcomes in 287 LGB individuals found that LGB individuals who experienced heterosexism in the workplace “exhibited higher levels of psychological distress and health-related problems, as well as decreased satisfaction with several aspects of their jobs.” The cross-sectional data used by many of these studies make it impossible to infer causality, though both prospective studies and qualitative analyses of the impact of unemployment on mental health suggest that at least some of the correlations are likely accounted for by the psychological and material effects of unemployment.
Stigma. Sociologists have for many years documented a range of adverse effects of stigma on individuals, ranging from issues with self-esteem to academic achievement. Stigma is typically regarded as an attribute attaching to a person that reduces that person’s worth to others in a particular social context. These negative evaluations are in many cases widely shared among a cultural group and become the basis for excluding or differentially treating stigmatized individuals. For example, mental illness can become stigmatized when it is regarded as a character flaw in mentally ill people. One reason why stigma serves an important role in the social stress model is that it can be invoked as an explanation even in the absence of particular events of discrimination or maltreatment. For example, stigmatization of depression may take place when a depressed person conceals the depression on the expectation that friends and family members will regard it as a character flaw. Even when this concealment is successful, and there is therefore no actual discrimination or mistreatment by the individual’s friends or family, anxiety over the attitudes others may have can affect the depressed person’s emotional and mental well-being.
Researchers have found associations between the risk of poor mental health and stigma toward certain populations, though there has been little empirical research on the mental health effects of stigma on LGBT people in particular. Stigma is not easy to define or operationalize, making it a difficult and vague concept for empirical social scientists to study. Nevertheless, researchers have attempted to work with the concept using surveys of self-perceived devaluation by others and have found correlations between experiences of stigma and the risk of poor mental health status. One highly cited 1997 study by sociologist and epidemiologist Bruce Link and colleagues on the connection between stigma and mental health found a “strong and enduring” negative effect of stigma on the mental well-being of men who were suffering from a mental disorder and substance abuse. In this study, the effects of stigma appeared to persist even after the men had received largely successful treatment for their original mental and substance abuse problems. The study found significant correlations between certain stigma variables — self-reported experiences of devaluation and rejection — and depressive symptoms before and after treatment, suggesting that the effects of stigma are relatively long-lasting. This might simply indicate that people with depressive symptoms tend to report more stigma, but if that were the case, one would have expected reports of stigma to decline over the course of the treatment program, as depression did. However, since stigma reports stayed constant, the authors concluded that stigma must have had a causal role in shaping depressive symptoms. It is worth noting that this study found stigma variables to account uniquely for around 10% or slightly more of the variance in depressive symptoms — in other words, stigma had a minor effect on depressive symptoms, though such an effect might manifest itself in significant ways on a population level. Some other researchers have suggested that the effects of stigma are usually minor and transitory; for example, Vanderbilt sociologist Walter Gove argued that for the “vast majority of cases the stigma [experienced by mental patients] appears to be transitory and does not appear to pose a severe problem.”
Researchers have relatively recently begun pursuing both empirical and theoretical work on how stigma affects the mental health of LGBT people, though there has been some controversy over the magnitude and duration of effects due to stigma. Some of the controversy may stem from the difficulty of defining and quantifying stigma as well as the variations in stigma across different social contexts. A 2013 study by Columbia University medical psychologist Walter Bockting and colleagues on mental health in 1,093 transgender people found a positive correlation between psychological distress and both enacted and felt stigma, which were measured using survey questions. A 2003 study by clinical psychologist Robin Lewis and colleagues of predictors of depressive symptoms in 201 LGB individuals found that stigma consciousness was significantly associated with depressive symptoms, where stigma consciousness was assessed using a ten-item questionnaire that assessed “the degree to which one expects to be judged on the basis of a stereotype.” However, depressive symptoms are often associated with negative cognition about the self, the world, and the future, and this may contribute to the subjective perception of stigmatization among individuals suffering from depression. A 2011 study by Bostwick that also used measures of stigma consciousness and depressive symptoms found a modest positive correlation between stigma scores and depressive symptoms in bisexual women, although the study was limited by having a relatively small sample size. However, a 2003 longitudinal study of Norwegian adolescents by psychologist Lars Wichstrøm and colleague found that sexual orientation was associated with poor mental health status after accounting for a variety of psychological risk factors, including self-worth. While this study did not directly consider stigma as a risk factor, it suggests that psychological factors such as stigma consciousness alone likely cannot fully account for the disparities in mental health between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals. Additionally, it is important to note that due to the cross-sectional design of these studies, causal inferences cannot be supported by the data — different kinds of data and more evidence would be needed to support conclusions about causal relationships. In particular, it is impossible to prove through these studies that stigma leads to poor mental health, as opposed to, for example, poor mental health leading people to report higher levels of stigma, or a third factor being responsible for both poor mental health and higher levels of stigma.
Concealment. Stigma may affect non-heterosexual individuals’ decisions about whether to disclose or conceal their sexual orientation. LGBT people may decide to conceal their sexual orientation to protect themselves against possible bias or discrimination, to avoid a sense of shame, or to avoid a potential conflict between their social role and sexual desires or behaviors. Particular contexts in which LGBT people may be more likely to conceal their sexual orientation include school, work, and other places in which they feel that disclosure could negatively affect the way that people regard them.
There is a large amount of evidence from psychological research indicating that concealment of an important aspect of one’s identity may have adverse mental health consequences. In general, expressing one’s emotions and sharing important aspects of one’s life with others play large roles in maintaining mental health. Recent decades have seen a growing body of research on the relationships between concealment and disclosure and mental health in LGBT subpopulations. For example, a 2007 study by Belle Rose Ragins and colleagues of workplace concealment and disclosure in 534 LGB individuals found that fear of disclosing was associated with psychological strain and other outcomes such as job satisfaction. However, the study also challenged the notion that disclosure leads to positive psychological and social outcomes, since employees’ disclosure was not significantly associated with most of the outcome variables. The authors interpret this result by saying that “this study suggests that concealment may be a necessary and adaptive decision in an unsupportive or hostile environment, thus underscoring the importance of social context.” Due to the relatively rapid changes in social acceptance of same-sex marriage and of same-sex relationships more broadly in recent decades, it is possible that some of the research on the psychological effects of concealment and disclosure is outdated, because in general there may now be less pressure for those identifying as LGB to conceal their identities.
Testing the model. One of the implications of the social stress model is that reducing the amount of discrimination, prejudice, and stigmatization of sexual minorities would help reduce the rates of mental health problems for these populations. Some jurisdictions have sought to reduce these social stressors by passing anti-discrimination and hate-crime laws. If such policies are in fact successful at reducing these stressors then they could be expected to reduce the rates of mental health problems in LGB populations to the extent that the social stress model accurately accounts for the causes of these problems. So far, studies have not been designed in such a way that could allow them to test conclusively the hypothesis that social stress accounts for the high rates of poor mental health outcomes in non-heterosexual populations, but there is research that provides some data on a testable implication of the social stress model.
A 2009 study by sociomedical scientist Mark Hatzenbuehler and colleagues investigated the association between psychiatric morbidity in LGB populations and two state-level policies that pertained to these populations: hate-crime laws that did not include sexual orientation as a protected category, and laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. The study used data on mental health outcomes from Wave 2 of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), a nationally representative sample of 34,653 civilian, non-institutionalized adults, and measuring psychiatric disorders according to DSM-IV criteria. Wave 2 of NESARC took place in 2004–2005. Of the sample, 577 respondents identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The analysis of the data showed that LGB individuals living in states with no hate-crime laws and no non-discrimination laws tended to have higher odds of psychiatric morbidity (compared to LGB individuals in states with one or two protective laws), but the analysis found statistically significant correlations only for dysthymia (a less severe but more persistent form of depression), generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, while the correlations between seven other psychiatric conditions investigated were not found to be statistically significant. No epidemiological inferences can be made due to the nature of the data, suggesting the need for more studies on this and similar topics.
Hatzenbuehler and colleagues attempted to improve on this cross-sectional study by doing a prospective study, published in 2010, this time examining changes in psychiatric morbidity over the period in which certain states passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman — amendments that were described by the study’s authors as “bans on gay marriage.” The authors examined differences in psychiatric morbidity between Wave 1 of NESARC, which took place in 2001–2002, and Wave 2, which coincided with the 2004 and 2005 state-constitutional amendments. They observed that the prevalence in mood disorders in LGB respondents living in states that passed marriage amendments increased by 36.6% between Waves 1 and 2. Mood disorders for LGB respondents living in states that did not pass marriage amendments decreased by 23.6%, though this change was not statistically significant. The prevalence of certain disorders increased both in states that passed such amendments and in states that did not. Generalized anxiety disorder, for example, increased in both, but by a much larger and statistically significant magnitude in states that passed marriage amendments. Hatzenbuehler and colleagues found that drug-use disorders increased more in states that did not pass marriage amendments, and the increase was statistically significant only for those states. (Total substance abuse disorders increased in both cases, by a roughly similar amount.) As with the earlier cross-sectional study, for the majority of the psychiatric conditions investigated there were no significant correlations between the conditions and the social policies that were hypothesized to have an influence on mental health outcomes.
Some of the limitations of the study’s findings noted by the authors include the following: healthier LGB respondents may have moved out of the states that would eventually pass marriage amendments into the states that would not; sexual orientation was only assessed during Wave 2 of NESARC, and there is some fluidity to sexual identity that may have led to misclassification of some LGB respondents; and the sample size of LGB respondents living in states that passed marriage amendments was relatively small, limiting the statistical power of the study.
One hypothesized causal mechanism for the change in mental health variables associated with the marriage amendments is that the public debate surrounding the amendments may have elevated the stress experienced by non-heterosexuals — a hypothesis that was put forward by psychologist Sharon Scales Rostosky and colleagues in a study of the attitudes of LGB adults in states that passed marriage amendments in 2006. The survey data collected during this study showed that LGB respondents living in states that passed marriage amendments in 2006 had higher levels of various kinds of psychological distress, including stress and depressive symptoms. The study also found that participation in LGBT activism during the election season was associated with increased psychological distress. It may be that part of the psychological distress recorded by this survey, which included perceived stress, depressive symptoms (but not diagnoses of depressive disorders), and what the researchers called “amendment-related affect,” may have simply reflected the typical feelings of advocates when they experience political defeat on an issue that they care passionately about. Other key limitations of the study were its cross-sectional design and its reliance on volunteers for the survey (in contrast to the previous study by Hatzenbuehler and colleagues). The survey methodology may also have biased the results — the researchers advertised on websites and through listserv e-mail announcements that they were looking for survey respondents for a study on “attitudes and experiences of LGB … individuals regarding the debate” over gay marriage. As with many forms of convenience sampling, individuals with strong attitudes regarding the issues under investigation in the survey may have been more likely to respond.
As for the effects of particular policies, the evidence is equivocal at best. The 2009 study by Hatzenbuehler and colleagues demonstrated significant correlations between the risk of some (though not all) mental health problems in the LGB subpopulation and state policies on hate crime and employment protections. Even for the aspects of mental health that this study found to be correlated with hate-crime or employment-protection policies, the study was unable to show an epidemiological relationship between policies and health outcomes.
The social stress model probably accounts for some of the poor mental health outcomes experienced by sexual minorities, though the evidence supporting the model is limited, inconsistent and incomplete. Some of the central concepts of the model, such as stigmatization, are not easily operationalized. There is evidence linking some forms of mistreatment, stigmatization, and discrimination to some of the poor mental health outcomes experienced by non-heterosexuals, but it is far from clear that these factors account for all of the disparities between the heterosexual and non-heterosexual populations. Those poor mental health outcomes may be mitigated to some extent by reducing social stressors, but this strategy is unlikely to eliminate all of the disparities in mental health status between sexual minorities and the wider population. Other factors, such as the elevated rates of sexual abuse victimization among the LGBT population discussed in Part One, may also account for some of these mental health disparities, as research has consistently shown that “survivors of childhood sexual abuse are significantly at risk of a wide range of medical, psychological, behavioral, and sexual disorders.”
Just as it does a disservice to non-heterosexual subpopulations to ignore or downplay the statistically higher risks of negative mental health outcomes they face, so it does them a disservice to misattribute the causes of these elevated risks, or to ignore other potential factors that may be at work. Assuming that a single model can explain all of the mental health risks faced by non-heterosexuals can mislead clinicians and therapists charged with helping this vulnerable subpopulation. The social stress model deserves further research, but should not be assumed to offer a complete explanation of the causes of mental health disparities if clinicians and policymakers want to adequately address the mental health challenges faced by the LGBT community. More research is needed to explore the causes of, and solutions to, these important public health challenges.
Sexuality and Gender