In 2017, Michael Hobbes wrote an article entitled “The Epidemic of Gay Loneliness” examining theories behind high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among gay men and members of the LGBT+ community.
Our Posture Shift seminar addresses key factors that impact mental health, including family rejection, church exclusion, and bullying. Rejection, isolation, and lack of support can map the brain of an LGBT+ individual to fear or anticipate threat or harm.
Gay men are, as [Alex Keuroghlian, a psychiatrist at the Fenway Institute’s Center for Population Research in LGBT Health,] puts it, “primed to expect rejection.” We’re constantly scanning social situations for ways we may not fit into them. We struggle to assert ourselves. We replay our social failures on a loop.
This heightened stress has been found among LGBT+ people who have been bullied or rejected. One’s “flight-or-fight” switch has been triggered so many times that it is always on.
Yet Hobbes notes that this same stress exists in gay men who have not been bullied or rejected.
Why is that?
The Reality of Minority Stress
New research is uncovering a phenomenon referred to as “minority stress.”
According to Hobbes,
Being a member of a marginalized group requires extra effort. When you’re the only woman at a business meeting, or the only black guy in your college dorm, you have to think on a level that members of the majority don’t. If you stand up to your boss, or fail to, are you playing into stereotypes of women in the workplace? If you don’t ace a test, will people think it’s because of your race? Even if you don’t experience overt stigma, considering these possibilities takes its toll over time.
John Pachankis, a stress researcher at Yale, notes that the real impact of minority stress on LGBT+ individuals happens in the four or five years between self-awareness and disclosure (coming out) to others.
For example, 12-year-old Thomas has just realized he is gay. As he stands in a locker room of other boys, even with no prior bullying, his mind experiences the stress of feeling different and the risk of potential mistreatment.
Hobbes goes on to quote William Elder, a sexual trauma researcher and psychologist:
“The trauma for gay men is the prolonged nature of it. If you experience one traumatic event, you have the kind of PTSD that can be resolved in four to six months of therapy. But if you experience years and years of small stressors—little things where you think, Was that because of my sexuality?—that can be even worse.”
LGBT+ youth deal with such fears most of the time yet they cannot always describe this internal experience. It is a hidden battle that can have long-term effects on mental health. Sadly, many LGBT+ youth suffer with an internal stress that few of us can see.
What can we do about this?
It All Starts With School and Home
An obvious answer is to work toward mitigating visible stressors. Hobbes explains, “any discussion of gay mental health has to start with what happens in schools.” Despite meaningful efforts to protect LGBT+ youth, GLSEN found that from 2005 to 2015 the percentage of teens bullied in connection to their sexual orientation stayed the same. Only 30 percent of schools in America have anti-bullying policies that specifically mention LGBT+ students.
We must also ensure that home life is secure and loving. We know from researchers like Dr. Caitlin Ryan that family rejection, stacked on top of bullying, is a leading risk factor for LGBT+ teen suicide. We also know that family disconnection—silence or withholding of support after youth come out—can have similar effects on suicidality.
Even if Thomas is not being bullied or rejected, he still processes complex questions about his safety, self-worth, and future. LGBT+ youth need someone with whom they can talk openly about their questions and fears.
Increasing Family Acceptance
We — as parents, pastors and friends — can help LGBT+ youth in our family, church, and circle of influence. We can be the safe person with whom such youth can openly share.
Lead Them Home seeks to eliminate family rejection in this generation. When LGBT+ young people feel safe and secure in their homes, churches, and schools, we can lower depression, suicide, and youth homelessness.
Our Guiding Families resource seeks to increase family acceptance, enhance church inclusion, and nourish faith identity for LGBT+ youth. Our care plan will save young lives by lowering the stressors they experience. We cannot eliminate every stress, but we certainly can make our homes and churches safe for our LGBT+ children.
To learn more, obtain your copy of Guiding Families.
Josh has an M.A. in Biblical Literature, and his greatest passion is help people grow in their relationship with Jesus.
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