Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teens who disclose their orientation at school have higher self-esteem and lower levels of depression as young adults, compared to LGBT youth who keep their identity a secret, according to new research at the University of Arizona (UA).
For the study, researchers examined data from 245 LGBT young adults, ages 21 to 25, enrolled in the Family Acceptance Project, a program designed to prevent risk and promote well-being of LGBT children and adolescents.
The findings showed that, whether or not they came out, virtually all respondents experienced victimization and bullying in highschool because of their LGBT identity.
However, those who were open about their orientation in high school reported higher self-esteem and life satisfaction as young adults than those who did not disclose, or who tried to hide it. Those who came out at school also reported lower levels of depression as young adults.
The findings were the same regardless of gender or ethnicity.
The results are significant as youth are coming out at younger ages, said researcher Dr. Stephen Russell. LGBT teens often are counseled by adults not to disclose their sexual orientation and gender identity in an attempt to protect them from harm, he said. But according to these findings, this may not be the best advice.
“Until now, a key question about balancing the need to protect LGBT youth from harm while promoting their well-being has not been addressed: Do the benefits of coming out at school outweigh the increased risk of victimization? Our study points to the positive role of coming out for youth and young adult well-being,” said Russell, director of the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families in the UA’s John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D.,director of the Family Acceptance Project and study co-author, said the finding has important implications for how adults and caregivers support LGBT youth.
“We know from our other studies that requiring LGBT adolescents to keep their LGBT identities secret or not to talk about them is associated with depression, suicidal behavior, illegal drug use, and risk for HIV. And helping them learn about and disclose their LGBT identity to others helps protect against risk and helps promote self-esteem and overall health,” Ryan said.
“This study underscores the critical role of school environment in influencing LGBT students’ risk and well-being into young adulthood.”
Russell, a UA Distinguished Professor of Family Studies and Human Development, was inspired to conduct the study after being asked to provide an expert opinion for a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU was suing Okeechobee High School in Florida after the school denied students the right to create a gay-straight alliance on campus. School officials had argued that the club would be disruptive and potentially harmful to students.
The case was settled before going to trial, with the ACLU prevailing. But when ACLU attorneys asked Russell if he could say with absolute certainty that it is better for gay teens to reveal their identity at school, he realized the lack of research on the subject.
Russell noted that the study findings, showing that coming out at school is linked to well-being later on, will be important for educating parents, school officials, and others about how to provide the best support and guidance for LGBT students.
“The thing that’s encouraging is that we’ve found being out is good for you,” said Russell. “This is clearly aligned with everything we know about identity. Being able to be who we are is crucial to mental health.”
The study is published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.
Source: University of Arizona