Each year, seven percent of Americans suffer from mood disorders such as depression.
Depression is the leading cause of disability and the second leading cause of years of life lost due to premature death in the world. Major depressive disorders are the number one predictor of suicide and account for between 20 and 35 percent of all suicide deaths each year. Five-hundred thousand Americans attempt suicide each year and the number of those who succeed—30,000—is more than the number that die in motor vehicle accidents annually.
As glum as those numbers are, research shows that things are even worse for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Depression affects LGBT people at much higher rates than the general population for a variety of reasons.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and young adults in the U.S.
Adolescence is a difficult time for many young people but can be especially challenging for LGBT youth. Negative attitudes and cultural stigmas toward those who are gay or transgender put LGBT youth at an increased risk for bullying, teasing, and physical violence compared with their heterosexual peers.
A 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT middle school and high school students between the ages of 13 and 21 found that, because of their sexuality, in the previous year:
- 8 in 10 had been verbally harassed at school
- 4 in 10 had been physically harassed at school
- 1 in 5 had been physically assaulted at school
- 6 in 10 felt unsafe at school
Because of the homosexual victimization, LGBT students were more likely than heterosexual students to report high levels of drug use, unexcused absences, feelings of depression, suicidal behaviors, and suicide attempts.
A national study of students in grades 7-12 found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely than their heterosexual peers to have attempted suicide and were more likely to have completed suicide.
Unfortunately, the problems for many LGBT youth don't stop when the school bell rings. Young adults who experienced high levels of parental rejection as adolescents are:
- three times as likely to use illegal drugs as their heterosexual peers
- three times as likely to engage in unprotected and "risky" sex
- six times as likely to experience high levels of depression
- eight times as likely to attempt suicide
How parents respond to an LGBT teen can have a tremendous impact on their adolescent’s current and future mental and physical health.
The stresses experienced by LGBT youth put them at greater risk for other mental health problems besides depression, especially substance abuse. Many parents react negatively upon learning that their son or daughter is gay and may even throw them out of house, while other LGBT kids run away from home due to conflict and/or stress. Thus, LGBT youth are at a greater risk for homelessness than heterosexual kids.
While there is little research available on the rates of depression among transgendered people, there is a building body of evidence that gay people—especially gay men—are disproportionately affected by depression compared to the general population.
A 2001 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found 12-month prevalence rates for major depressive disorder (MDD) were 10.3 percent for gay men, compared to 7.2 percent for heterosexual men. Another 21-year study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 1999 found lifetime prevalence rates of MDD among gay, lesbian and bisexual people were 71.4 percent, compared to 38.2 percent among heterosexuals.
"Minority stress," which includes social stigma, prejudice, hiding one's identity, internalized homophobia, and expectations of rejection play a major role in the higher rates of depression in the gay community.
How to Help
Because much of the depression among those in the LGBT community can be traced to adolescence, it is important for parents to foster healthy, positive, and supportive environments for their LGBT child.
Parents should be willing to talk openly with their teen about any problems he is having at home or at school and be watchful of signs of bullying or violence.
If a child's depression is related to harassment or bullying, parents should take immediate action by contacting school officials and encouraging them to either implement or enforce anti-bullying and harassment policies. Parents should also get involved with other adults and parents in the community.
For LGBT youth themselves—many of whom may feel ostracized at home or at school—an online resource began in 2010 by syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage can provide much needed support. The It Gets Better Project has become a worldwide movement in which tens of thousands of user-created videos—including many made by celebrities—share their stories of overcoming bullying and harassment and letting kids know that things do get better.
For more information, go to www.itgetsbetter.org.