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Study: Family Behavior Key to Health of Gay Youth

Study: Family Behavior Key to Health of Gay Youth

Lisa Leff / AP

December 30, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – Young gay people whose parents or guardians responded negatively when they revealed their sexual orientation were more likely to attempt suicide, experience severe depression and use drugs than those whose families accepted the news, according to a new study.

The way in which parents or guardians respond to a youth’s sexual orientation profoundly influences the child’s mental health as an adult, say researchers at San Francisco State University, whose findings appear in Monday’s journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“Parents love their children and want the best for them,” said lead researcher Caitlin Ryan, a social worker who directs the university’s Family Acceptance Project. “Now that we have measured all these behaviors, we can see that some of them put youth at extremely high risk and others are wellness-promoting.”

Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.

More significantly, Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with equanimity instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth’s mental health outlook.

One of the most startling findings was that being forbidden to associate with gay peers was as damaging as being physically beaten or verbally abused by their parents in terms of negative feedback, Ryan said.

In the two-part study, Ryan and her colleagues first interviewed 53 families with gay teenagers to identify 106 specific behaviors that could be considered “accepting” or “rejecting.” For example, blaming a youth for being bullied at school, shielding him from other relatives or belittling her appearance for not conforming to social expectations fell into the rejecting category.

Next, they surveyed 224 white and Latino gay people between ages 21 and 25 to see which of the behaviors they had experienced growing up. The responses then were matched against the participants’ recent histories of severe depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse and unsafe sexual behavior.

While the results might seem intuitive, Ryan said the study, funded by the California Endowment, was the first to establish a link between health problems in gay youths and their home environments.

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