If I remember correctly, being a teenager is hard. I found that cloaking yourself in ironic detachment helped, but still. People can be jerks and it can be hard to just be yourself.
I felt this way, and I’m a straight, cis, middle class, white girl from the Midwest. I can’t even begin to fathom what it must be like for kids who are somehow different from the average. I’m not sure I could have coped on my own.
It used to be that homosexuality was classed as a mental disorder. Even though it’s 20-freaking-14 and we’ve recognized that being gay isn’t a sign of mental illness, there is still a persistent myth that homosexuality somehow causes other types of mental illness. While gay people do tend to have higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, there is a link between that increase and how terribly gays and lesbians are treated by the wider society. One only needs to look at the spate of suicides by gay kids to realize that the cost of discrimination is quite high.
However, a new study suggests that there is something we can do to decrease the suicides of gay youth. It’s so obvious that I can’t believe it hasn’t been confirmed sooner: have schools set up programs to combat homophobia.
Of course, right? It makes a certain amount of sense. Work to make being gay accepted and maybe kids see light at the end of the tunnel. But that’s not all. According to the researchers, programs like gay-straight alliances (GSAs) actually improve the mental health of all students, regardless of orientation.
“We know that LGBTQ students are at higher risk for suicide, in part because they are more often targeted for bullying and discrimination,” says Elizabeth Saewyc, a University of British Columbia nursing professor and lead author of the study. “But heterosexual students can also be the target of homophobic bullying. When policies and supportive programs like GSAs are in place long enough to change the environment of the school, it’s better for students’ mental health, no matter what their orientation.”
The study looked at 22,000 students, a fifth of which went to schools that had anti-homophobia bullying policies and a third of which had a GSA. About 60 percent of the 22,000 went to schools that had neither of those things.
In schools with GSAs for three years or more, the odds of homophobic discrimination and suicidal thoughts were reduced by more than half among the school’s LGB population. Additionally, in those schools with GSAs, heterosexual kids were less likely to suffer from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and heterosexual boys were less likely to attempt suicide when compared with schools without gay-straight alliances.
In schools that have had anti-homophobic policies in place for more than three years, the odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts decreased for gay and bisexual boys by 70 percent, and decreased for lesbians and bisexual girls by two-thirds. These policies seem to have an effect on heterosexual boys, as well. The researchers found a 27 percent decrease in the odds of suicidal thoughts in heterosexual boys when compared with schools without the anti-homophobic policies.
Who would have thought? More acceptance of different sexual orientations actually helps more people than just sexual minorities. This actually makes a lot of sense. There is a social cost to being different, especially as a teenager. Even the perception of difference can be a heavy burden to carry. Being gay, or the perception of being gay, is something that can hang over you. If people stop caring about that type of thing, then being different in that particular way stops being a source of stress and anxiety. This would be true for everybody, not just the gay kids.
Of course, humans are complex and it’s unlikely the problem of homophobic bullying and gay suicides will be solved even if every school in the world had a GSA. But it’s more evidence to suggest that there is nothing wrong with gay people. It’s how we treat them.
Photo Credit: jglsongs via Flickr