The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

The Mental Health Consequences of Anti Gay-Marriage Laws

Do anti gay-marriage laws trigger mental disorders?

Gays & lesbians in 16 U.S. states suffered steep increases in depression, anxiety & addictions between 2001-05. The states were Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Utah.

What happened in those states in that time period that may have caused such distress? Those states all passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage in that time period, according to new research by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler, Katie A. McLaughlin, Katherine M. Keyes and Deborah S. Hasin. Heterosexuals in those states did not show the same increase in mental disorders/distress, and gays and lesbians living in the other 34 U.S. states (that did not pass such constitutional bans) also did not see such increases in distress and disorder.

The increases were striking: Generalized anxiety disorders among gays and lesbians in those 16 states rose 248.2%, alcoholism increased by 41.9 percent and mood disorders (including depression) increased by 36.6% according to a paper published in the American Journal of Public Health.

The researchers themselves note the appropriate caveats that their data could not address: It’s possible, for example, that gays and lesbians who were healthier to begin with (or privileged in other ways) moved to states with more liberal attitudes toward homosexuality, leaving behind those who were sicker to begin with. It’s unclear whether the new laws were themselves responsible for the change, or if the general climate surrounding these laws were to blame. It’s also unclear whether liberal policies toward gays and lesbians would result in decreases in disorders. Such questions cannot be addressed without conducting randomized experiments, and such experiments (which would involve randomly assigning gays and lesbians to different states, for example) would be both impractical and unethical.

It’s good to keep the caveats in mind, but I think this study raises profoundly important questions about the effects that our national conversation about homosexuality has on the mental health of gays and lesbians. It’s never been a secret or surprise that there are human beings at the receiving end of these policies and debates, but this research brings home clearly the effects that laws and institutional actions can have on the personal well being of individuals.

In making what is essentially a civil rights argument against constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, the researchers write, “although the constitutional amendments largely codified policies that existed de facto, the sociocultural environment surrounding the approval of these amendments made them no less psychologically harmful. Creating constitutional amendments banning gay marriage reinforced the marginalized and socially devalued status of lesbian, gay and transgendered individuals. Moreover, the negative political campaigns against gays and lesbians by proponents of these amendments, which were well-circulated in the media, further promulgated the stigma associated with homosexuality.”

Since the time the study was completed other states, including California, have passed similar bans. Research is ongoing about whether the same changes in mental health among gays and lesbians is occurring in those states.

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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