LGBQ people are more likely to experience depressive symptoms from as young as age 10 than their peers – and these symptoms can persist into their early 20s, a new study had found.
Depressive symptoms increase at a higher rate through adolescence among LGBQ youth than for their heterosexual peers, and they are more likely to have self-harmed recently, according to the findings published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. In fact, LGBQ young people were found to be four times more likely to self-harm with suicidal intent than heterosexuals.
The study, which is the first of its kind in the UK, included 4,828 young people from the Children of the 90s birth cohort (the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, or ALSPAC), who reported their sexual orientation at the age of 16.
[Read More: Pride + Prejudice: The UK’s LGBT+ Landscape in 2018]
Researchers explained that the study was focused on sexual orientation, and gender identity was not part of the survey, so transgender and non-binary identities were not among the variables (and the shorthand LGBQ was used).
All participants who were not exclusively heterosexual were grouped into the ‘sexual minority’ category – 625 people (13%) described themselves as homosexual, bisexual, mainly homosexual, mainly heterosexual, unsure or not attracted to either sex.
The participants responded to questions about depressive symptoms seven times from age 10 to 21, and at 16 and 21 were asked if they had attempted to hurt themselves in the past year.
“We’ve known for some time that sexual minority youth have worse mental health outcomes, and it’s quite concerning that we’ve found this trend starts as early as 10 years old, and worsens throughout adolescence,” said the study’s senior author, Dr Gemma Lewis of UCL’s Psychiatry department.
Depressive symptoms increased throughout adolescence in both groups but the increase was greater for sexual minority youth, who already were more likely to report depressive symptoms from age 10. Self-harm was more common among non-heterosexuals at both 16 and 21.
At age 18 years, the LGBQ adolescents were twice as likely to fulfil the criteria for a clinical diagnosis of depression. Mental health outcomes were worse for each of the sexual minority groups compared to heterosexuals.
While the study did not investigate the reasons behind these differences, the researchers say there are numerous factors likely to be involved.
We suspect that a sense of feeling different might affect mental health before children can even articulate that difference."
“As these differences emerge so early, we suspect that a sense of feeling different might affect mental health before children can even articulate that difference,” said the study’s first author, Madeleine Irish of King’s College London. “As they progress through adolescence, a range of stressors could be involved, such as discrimination, stigmatisation, feelings of loneliness, social isolation, shame or fear or rejection, including at home or at school.”
Co-author Dr Alexandra Pitman said the findings suggest clinicians who encounter young people should be mindful about sexuality in considering the wider context for depressive symptoms or self-harm.
“Clinicians should use language and questions that reflect openness about sexuality, and not assume heterosexuality, and they should be aware that a young person who identifies as not exclusively heterosexual may have struggled with mental health problems from early in development,” said Dr Pitman.