The teenage years can be a mixed bag, filled with high highs (think, that moment when you learn that your crush likes you back) and low lows (remember that feeling when you find out you’re the subject of some harsh gossip?). This is true regardless of your sexual orientation. For youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual and gender identities (LGBT+) however, discrimination, stigma, and other stressful experiences can sometimes increase the number of lows and reduce the number of highs .
This is not a predetermined destiny for LGBT+ youth. Indeed, there are many things we can do to help turn the tables and support youth to live happy and healthy lives. At a basic level, this means creating safer spaces for LGBT+ youth at home, at school, and in the community; and making sure that laws and policies protect the health and rights of all youth, irrespective of who they are attracted to or what their gender is.
Family members, especially parents, can make a huge difference by being very clear with their LGBT+ teens that they love them and embrace all of the pieces that make them unique and who they are, including their sexual and gender identity. When surveyed, LGBT+ teens who reported that their families supported them in their identity felt better about themselves, had more people who supported them, and were healthier than those whose families rejected or did not fully accept them . On the other hand, LGBT+ youth who do not have accepting families struggle more with depression, drugs and alcohol, and feelings of suicide . Clearly, family acceptance is a powerful force for all teens, and LGBT+ youth are no exception.
In schools, starting or supporting a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) can make a big difference. GSAs are student clubs that support LGBT+ students and help create safe and inclusive environments for all youth . LGBT+ students who go to schools with a GSA are half as likely to be targeted by comments meant to hurt or denigrate gay people . Additionally, schools with GSAs often have less bullying. This may be because having a GSA shows support for diversity and sends the message that homophobia is unacceptable. The visibility of sexual and gender diversity in the student population may also encourage teachers and staff to foster a supportive learning environment. This is especially beneficial for those students who have not yet come out or who are questioning their identity.
Policy and legislative changes can also positively affect LGBT+ teens. For example, a recent study found that state legalization of same-sex marriage predicted a drop in LGBT+ youth suicide attempts . Before a state legalizes same-sex marriage, about one in four sexual minority youth report a suicide attempt in the past year . Once a law is in place, teen suicide attempts fall about 7 percent in that state . Perhaps this shift in statewide legislation reflects an overall shift toward LGBT+ support within these states that contributes to a more accepting experience for youth. It may also mean that a top-down institutional change can discourage stigma and negative attitudes toward the LGBT+ community. It may also simply give LGBT+ youth hope that they are accepted and treated as equals. Whatever the reason, this study’s findings show how laws can help save LGBT+ youth lives.
These are just a few examples of how creating and supporting an accepting and diverse environment at various levels can positively affect the lives of LGBT+ youth. And this can have long-term effects. A recent study found that young adults who came out as LGBT while in high school were less likely to be depressed compared to peers who did not come out . These same adults also had higher self-esteem and were more satisfied with their lives. Let’s work together to make the places where teens gather supportive of all teens, especially those LGBT+ youth who often face an unequal amount of adversity.
Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research.
Thank you to Emilie Chen and Hannah Madison for your contributions to this blog.
 APA Public Interest Government Relations Office. LGBT Health Disparities. 2013. Accessible at: https://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/lgbt/disparities-brief.pdf
 Ryan C, Russell ST, Huebner D, Diaz R, and Sanchez J. Family acceptance in adolescence and the health of LGBT young adults. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing. 2010; 23:205–213.
 Rosario M, Schrimshaw, EW, & Hunter, J. Disclosure of sexual orientation and subsequent substance use and abuse among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths: Critical role of disclosure reactions. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. 2009; 23(1):175–184.
 What is a GSA? GSA Network. Accessible at: https://gsanetwork.org/resources/building-your-gsa/what-gsa
 Nesbit J. Gay-Straight Alliance Make Schools Safer, Study Finds. U.S. News. 2016. Accessible at: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-08-04/gay-straight-alliances-in-schools-pay-off-for-all-students-study-finds
 Rikken M. Same-sex marriage policy linked to drop in teen suicide attempts. ResearchGate. 2017. Accessible at: https://www.researchgate.net/blog/post/same-sex-marriage-policy-linked-to-drop-in-teen-suicide-attempts
 Blue A, Renna C. LGBT Teens Who Come Out at School Have Better Self-Esteem, Study Finds. UANews. 2015. Accessible at: https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/lgbt-teens-who-come-out-at-school-have-better-self-esteem-study-finds