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Supporting Children Who Come Out Matters

SPH study: possible influence on long-term health

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Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays PFLAG Capital Pride 2012 parade

Supporters march in the Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) Capital Pride 2012 parade near Dupont Circle, Washington, DC. Photo by Adam Fagen

Coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual may be good for young people’s health, particularly when parental support is involved.

A comprehensive new study led by Emily Rothman, a School of Public Health associate professor of community health sciences, shows that two-thirds of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in a representative Massachusetts sample reported receiving positive support from their parents after telling them about their sexual orientation. Their incidence of mental health and substance abuse problems was significantly lower than those who did not receive support, the authors report.

Overall, the study found that three-quarters of lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults reported having come out to their parents, typically when they were about 25 years old.

Parents’ response to their coming out led to different health outcomes, according to the researchers. Gay and bisexual males whose parents did not support them, for example, had six to seven times the odds of serious depression and binge drinking, while lesbian and bisexual females had 5 times the odds of developing serious depression, and 11 times the odds of illicit drug use.

In the study, published in the Journal of Homosexuality, Rothman and her colleagues surveyed 5,658 Massachusetts adults ages 18 to 64 using a statewide surveillance system. They explored whether coming out—and the reaction it received—was associated with better or worse adult health. The authors controlled for such factors as age, race, education level, and health insurance status, in order to focus as narrowly as possible on the association between coming out and adult health status.

Emily Rothman, Boston University School of Public Health SPH, community health sciences

“Parents should take note: the way we treat our LGB children…may have a long-term, significant impact on their health and ability to handle life’s challenges,” says Emily Rothman. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Some college students who came out to their parents in their late teens said they were not surprised by the findings. Nicole Sullivan, a 22-year-old student at Bunker Hill Community College, came out as bisexual when she was 19 years old. “I struggled with mental health and drug problems during my adolescence, and I know that some of it is because I didn’t feel accepted at home,” she says. “I am really grateful that I had cousins who supported me, and it’s because of them that I was able to get healthy.”

The study’s authors found that the act of coming out (instead of remaining closeted) was generally associated with better health for lesbian and bisexual women, but that this was not similarly true for gay and bisexual men.

“It’s possible that the stress of not disclosing your sexuality to your parents affects men and women differently,” explains Rothman. “In general, gay and bisexual men may be able to conduct their sexual lives apart from their parents with less stress. On the other hand, it’s also possible that this was true only for this particular sample.”

Citing the high rates of suicide and self-harm among lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) young people, and the high costs of treating mental-health and substance-abuse disorders, Rothman says that “it’s critical that we understand what we can do to promote better health for LGB kids.”

In the study, the authors propose that a low-cost but potentially far-reaching strategy to improve LGB youth health would be for national academies of pediatric medicine to develop and disseminate guidelines or recommendations that would encourage pediatricians to provide all parents of adolescents with tips for supporting their children if they come out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

“The way that parents treat their LGB children when they come out is an important public health topic that has received too little attention to date,” Rothman says. “Our message is that parents should take note: the way we treat our LGB children, even from before the time they disclose their sexual orientation status, may have a long-term, significant impact on their health and ability to handle life’s challenges.”

Other researchers on the study were Ulrike Boehmer, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences, and Mairead Sullivan (SSW’07) of Emory University.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The full study is available here.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Supporting Children Who Come Out Matters

  • Csharie Bluntson on 09.30.2013 at 12:49 pm

    I think coming out the closet is very important to your childrens health. If you cant be truly who you are in front of your parents ;your creators and mentors that is very stressful and frustrating. After your child do come out the closet you have to support them because if you don’t there going to feel as if you don’t love them so who will love them if their own parents cant. They will all lead to pain and drugs to keep the hurt away . This will all effect your heatlth.

  • thomas on 12.04.2013 at 4:05 pm

    I believe that a child should be loved no matter what. Even if their sexual orientation is different than the norm. If a child decides to come out, then they are facing extreme odds and I believe the kids parents should always be in their corner even if it is a tall task for the parent.

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