Does It Really Get Better for LGBTQ Teens?

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A teen couple.

Does It Get Better? A Longitudinal Analysis of Psychological Distress and Victimization in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth” (abstract). Michelle Birkett, Michael E. Newcomb, and Brian Mustanski. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 56 (2015).

What it’s about: Researcher Michelle Birkett and her colleagues wanted to see if there's evidence to support the idea behind the It Gets Better Project. The awareness-raising campaign tells lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning, or LGBTQ, youth that life will improve as they get older.

The researchers followed 231 LGBTQ Chicago youth for nearly four years. Youth reported six times on their health, mental health, and experiences being victimized. The researchers used the information to map out young people’s well-being in the short term and over time.

Why read it: Past studies show that, compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ youth face greater risk of mental health challenges, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Some researchers say short-term changes, such as gay-straight alliances, can create more supportive environments at school and at home and reduce bullying and discrimination. However, few have studied LGBTQ youth for more than a year to see how stigma and stress develop over time and affect mental health in the long term.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Birkett and her colleagues found that youths' psychological distress varied greatly over time. They also found that things did, generally, "get better" as youth got older. Over time, youth generally reported feeling less distressed. They were also less likely as they got older to be verbally threatened and insulted or chased, to have property damaged, or to be physically or sexually assaulted. These patterns, the authors write, suggest that older youth may be in less psychological distress because they are victimized less.

Participants who were victimized more at a specific time during the study also tended to be more depressed in that moment. Youth who had less support during a diffucult time also reported more symptoms of depression.

Some groups of youth (young men, transgender youth, and members of racial and ethnic minority groups) were victmized more than their peeers, a finding consistent with other research. It's important to consider, the authors say, how individual LGBTQ youths' experiences vary.

Even though things did get better for many youth in the study, youth who suffered bullying and abuse at an early age experienced more problems in the long term. Being supported at a young age, however, did not appear to make a significant difference in health and well-being over time. According to the authors, these results suggest that it's not enough for youth to have support if they're still being bullied and abused.

Additional references: Look for more articles on LGBTQ Youth in NCFY’s research library.

Access our online training on creating a safe space for LGBTQ teens.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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