Keeping a part of yourself secret from those you love can undoubtedly lead to stress, especially if you’re keeping that secret because of societal pressures. When that secret is your sexuality, it increases your risk of devastating health effects associated with chronic stress, according to new research.

Researchers at the Université de Montréal found that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who are open about their sexuality experience fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout.

Moreover, they also discovered that bisexual and gay men tend to be less stressed and depressed than straight men.

Comedian and political pundit Stephen Colbert cracked some light-hearted jokes on his show, The Colbert Report, when he covered the study.

“As an incredible straight man, I’m incredibly stressed out,” he said. “I mean, I am a ticking time bomb. That’s why every time I accidentally wander into a gay bar and see all those happy people, I shout, ‘I’m ready to blow!’”

Testing the Stress of Being in the Closet

Scientists at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) at Louis H. Lafontaine Hospital in Montreal focused their research on the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic stress can lead to excess amounts of cortisol in the body, which contributes to the “wear and tear” on numerous bodily systems. This may include weakening the immune system to the degree that it can barely fight off a cold.

The effect of cortisol on your body is called “allostatic load.” To see how sexuality affects one's allostatic load, researchers recruited 87 Montrealers of diverse sexual orientations and collected psychological questionnaires and bodily fluid samples to test for elevated levels of cortisol and other signs of stress.

"Our goals were to determine if the mental and physical health of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals differs from heterosexuals and, if so, whether being out of the closet makes a difference,” lead author Robert-Paul Juster said. "Contrary to our expectations, gay and bisexual men had lower depressive symptoms and allostatic load levels than heterosexual men. Lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals who were out to family and friends had lower levels of psychiatric symptoms and lower morning cortisol levels than those who were still in the closet."

Barriers to Better Health

The researchers call their findings exciting, and say they highlight the role of self-acceptance and disclosure in the positive health and well-being of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, or LGBs.

Researchers said that the stress facing lesbians, gays, and bisexuals is caused in part by continuing social stigma about their sexual orientations. Scientists said the key is to develop coping strategies to manage these stressors in the long-term. 

To address the public health consequences of remaining in the closet, researchers said, societies must promote self-acceptance, tolerance, and progressive policies while dispelling stigmas for all minority groups.

"Coming out might only be beneficial for health when there are tolerant social policies that facilitate the disclosure process," said Juster. "Societal intolerance during the disclosure process impairs one's self-acceptance, and that generates increased distress and contributes to mental and physical health problems." 

"As the participants of this study enjoy progressive Canadian rights, they may be inherently healthier and hardier," Juster said. "Coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate but a matter of public health. Internationally, societies must endeavour to facilitate this." 

Juster's research was published in Psychosomatic Medicine.

A New LGBT Journal

When the National Institutes of Health investigated the health status and healthcare needs of the LGBT community, they found that their needs were not being met. In response, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. is beginning LGBT Health, an academic journal that focuses on LGBT health issues and policies.

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