Homosexual people tend to experience more mental health problems than heterosexual people, research indicates. Discrimination may contribute to the higher risk, believes lead researcher Dr. Apu Chakraborty of University College London, UK.

His team looked at rates of mental disorder among 7,403 adults living in the UK, whose details were obtained from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2007. Rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobia, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and drug dependence were significantly higher in homosexual respondents.

Four percent had a depressive episode in the last week, compared to two percent of heterosexual people. The rate of alcohol dependence was ten percent versus five percent, and for self-harming it was nine percent versus five percent.

The proportion of homosexual people who described themselves as being fairly or very happy was 30 percent, versus 40 percent for heterosexual people.

Dr. Chakraborty believes the findings are “very worrying.” He said, “This study is the first time the mental health and well-being of gay, lesbian and bisexual people has been examined in a random sample of the population.

“Our study confirms earlier work carried out in the UK, USA and Holland which suggests that non-heterosexual people are at higher risk of mental disorder, suicidal ideation, substance misuse and self-harm than heterosexual people.”

He stated that, although the level of discrimination was low, it was still significantly higher than against heterosexual people. This “lends support to the idea that people who feel discriminated against experience social stressors, which in turn increases their risk of experiencing mental health problems,” he says.

These higher levels of psychiatric problems in homosexual people call for greater efforts at preventing the issues arising, Dr. Chakraborty adds.

In the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, participants chosen to be representative of the UK population gave information on neurotic symptoms, common mental disorders, probable psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and drug use, as well as aspects of sexual identity and perceived discrimination.

The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Dr. Chakraborty and his team write, “Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation predicted certain neurotic disorder outcomes, even after adjustment for potentially confounding variables.”

Commenting on the study on the journal’s website, psychiatrist Dr. Mohinder Kapoor of the South West Yorkshire Foundation NHS Trust, UK, highlights the limited evidence in this area. He says “credit should be given to the authors in conducting this study.”

But he pointed out that a cross-sectional study like this can only raise the question of an association, rather than test a hypothesis. The authors “appear over-ambitious,” he writes, because “one cannot test whether psychiatric problems are associated with discrimination on grounds of sexuality.”

To study the true impact of sexuality-based discrimination on mental health problems, a longer-term approach is needed, he states.

Whether or not discrimination is the cause, mental health problems have previously been found to be higher among homosexual people. In 2008, Professor Michael King and his team at University College London, UK, carried out a review of 28 papers on the subject. All were published between 1966 and 2005, and included a total of 214,344 heterosexual and 11,971 homosexual people.

Their analysis revealed twice the rate of suicide attempts among lesbian, gay and bisexual people. The risks of depression and anxiety disorders were at least one and a half times higher, as was alcohol and other substance abuse.

Most of the results were similar in both sexes, but women were particularly at risk of alcohol and drug dependence and men at a higher risk of suicide attempts.

The researchers say, “There are a number of reasons why gay people may be more likely to report psychological difficulties, which include difficulties growing up in a world orientated to heterosexual norms and values and the negative influence of social stigma against homosexuality.

“In addition, the gay commercial world in which some men and women may participate to find partners and friends may make misuse of alcohol and cigarettes more likely. The former in particular can have adverse effects on mental well-being.

“Finally, our results add to evidence that sexual experiences in childhood in men classified as gay or bisexual may play a role in adult psychological adjustment,” they conclude.