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LGBT Youth Struggle Worldwide, Researcher Seeks Remedy

lgbt youth rights, human nature
Ryan Watson.

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to Live Science in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

It's no secret that minorities in the U.S. face unique challenges and often experience compromised outcomes. In fact, the story is even worse than many people think. Some Americans expect there might be a different story in countries with allegedly different views toward minorities, such as Norway. But is this, in fact, the case? As a human developmentalist, I examine data from studies that follow tens of thousands of individuals in both the U.S. and Norway to find the best predictors of success for non-heterosexual individuals.

I work with a team of scientists at the Frances McClelland Institute, which is part of the University of Arizona's Family Studies and Human Development program. I use longitudinal data to inform a program of research on creating supportive academic and social environments, reducing bullying and finding supportive communities for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) youth across the United States, and now Norway. My motivation for visiting Norway, which has a reputation for more progressive attitudes regarding LGBT issues, stems from my findings in the United States. Specifically, I and my colleagues have found that LGBT youth are eight times more likely to report suicide attempts, six times more likely to report high levels of depression and three times more likely to abuse drugs and engage in unsafe sex.

These disparities are not confined to adolescence: Early experiences at school specific to being LGBT have important implications over the lifespan. For example, LGBT youth are more likely to disengage at school due to the stigma of their sexual orientation. Those students who are disengaged in high school report clinical levels of depression and suicidality in young adulthood. Compared to their LGBT counterparts who are able to apply themselves in the face of discrimination and stigma, the disengaged youth suffer emotionally throughout their entire lives, and even at work as adults.

Most striking are the outcomes for LGBT youth that are associated with bias-based bullying . Compared to heterosexual youth, LGBT students who are bullied due to their sexual orientation are up to 10 times more likely to smoke, get into trouble with the police and get into fights. They also are more likely to be killed. Stigma and victimization related to sexual orientation oftentimes are implicated as the causes of these negative outcomes.

Research continually shows that some youth are protected against these outcomes. My team and I want to know what makes these youth resilient in the face of discrimination. Thus, the next logical step is to inquire why negative outcomes are so prevalent for LGBT youth and how we can support these youth. I turned to Norway for answers.

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide program and the Research Council of Norway funded me to travel to Trondheim, Norway to collaborate with a leading scholar in adolescent psychopathology, Lars Wichstrøm at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Together, we are using a database designed by Wichstrøm that traces the experiences of youth from 1992 to 2005. My advisor at the University of Arizona, Stephen Russell, will work with me to compare these findings to a dataset that tracked more than 20,000 youth in the United States from 1994 to 2008.

Ryan Watson speaks to a team of researchers interested in health issues affecting LGBT people, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. (Image credit: Chris Wheldon, University of South Florida)


My findings, thus far, are intriguing.

While we might expect the experiences for LGBTs in Norway to be different because of progressive social environments and a plethora of gay rights as compared to the United States, preliminary analyses suggest otherwise. Youth are reporting compromised outcomes across the board in both the United States and Norway — such that gay individuals are almost 12 times more likely to use hard drugs compared to their heterosexual counterparts in Norway. In some cases, youth report higher levels of mental health disorders in Norway than in the United States. For example, youth who report their sexual identity as heterosexual yet engaged in same-sex relations were 10 times more likely to be depressed; this finding did not hold in the United States. This particular finding makes me wonder about the role of culture for Norwegian youth. Are youth suffering from internalized homophobia differently in Norway as compared to the United States?

Other Norwegian findings show the importance of parents, peers and romantic partners in protecting youth against compromised mental health. For example, LGBT youth report less depression and suicidality when they have parents who show more care and acceptance. More intimacy with peers and romantic partners also protect youth in Norway from being depressed and suicidal. Data from both the United States and Norway implicate parents as the most important support system for LGBT youth. [Accepting Parents Boost Mental Health of LGBT Teens ]

Finally, the focus turns to: how can we inform others about these disparities and protective support systems? I am a part of the Crossroads Collaborative at the University of Arizona, a coalition of scholars and community members who are trying to answer this question. With my colleagues, I authored a research brief that informs multiple stakeholders on how to reduce bullying (especially bias-based bullying) in our schools. The ultimate goal for our research is to disseminate it to the public.

By way of a National Science Foundation Pre-doctoral fellowship, I have talked to LGBT youth in Arizona and studied the experiences of this LGBT youth across the world to understand the best ways scholars, families and policymakers can support the needs of this vulnerable population. We seek to take the next steps to battle against stigma, discrimination, and bullying.

While I continue to trace the experiences of LGBT youth across time, efforts to find ways to empower this population remain strong across the United States. But we can always do better. The hope is that cross-cultural research on this population can shed light on the best ways to support our youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and help them grow into successful, healthy and happy adults.

Want to learn more? I write a blog to document my travels and research projects across the world.

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.