Family Support for LGBT Youth

HeadshotThis post was authored by Elizabeth McConnell who is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at DePaul University, and is an intern at Impact: The LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University.

LGBT Youth At-Risk

It’s no secret LGBT youth are at increased risk for a number of mental health problems, like depression, self-harm, and suicide. The National Institute of Health is moving towards recognizing the LGBT community as a health disparity population and the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called for more research. People are starting to understand how many LGBT youth experience major stressors and traumas, like homelessness and bullying.

At the same time, we know social support promotes resiliency among LGBT youth. Learning more about how and why social support promotes positive outcomes can help us figure out how to develop better interventions for LGBT youth who are at-risk of experiencing negative outcomes.

Looking at Social Support

I’m an intern at The Impact Program at Northwestern University, which does community based translational research focused on LGBT health. Through Impact, I’ve been lucky to work with participants in Project Q2, the longest follow-up study of LGBT youth ever conducted. These young people have shown up every six months for the past six years to help us better understand risk and protective factors for LGBT youth over time.

Recently, I worked with Michelle Birkett and Brian Mustanski at Impact to look more closely at the role of social support in promoting positive outcomes for LGBT youth. We used cluster analysis to look at social support among Project Q2 participants at baseline, when they were 16-20 years old (McConnell, Birkett, & Mustanski, 2013).

We found three “types” of LGBT youth based on relative levels of sources of social support. LGBT youth in the high support cluster type had high levels family, peer, and significant other support. Youth in the low support cluster type had low levels of all three sources of support. Finally, youth in the non-family support cluster type had moderate levels of peer and significant other support, but low levels of family support.

On the upside, almost half of youth fell into the high support cluster type (44%). Just over a third fell into the non-family support cluster (35%), indicating a sizeable portion of youth receive support from sources other than their families. Finally, just under a quarter of youth (22%) reported low social support across the board.

What about the relationship between social support and mental health? Is there a type of social support that seems to be the most important? For the most part, we found youth in the non-family support cluster were similar to youth in the low support cluster group on mental health outcomes (like depression, somatization, suicidality, and hopelessness). The only difference was that the low support type reported more loneliness. Youth in the high support cluster type had the fewest mental health problems. This supports findings from previous research that underscore the importance of family support.

Next Steps

We think this study shows just how important family support is for LGBT youth. Although we didn’t ask youth about family rejection, we think many youth in the non-family support cluster may have parents who aren’t accepting of their sexual orientation. The fact that this puts these youth so at risk for mental health problems underscores the importance of interventions to help increase family support.

In the future, we would love to look at the role of support from chosen family, as many LGBT folks create supportive social networks they consider family. Although the youth in this study were teenagers when they answered our questions, they are now in their early to mid-20s, and those who didn’t have supportive families may have since built more supportive networks of their own.


McConnell, E. A., Birkett, M., & Mustanski, B. (2013, November). Social support and well-being among LGBT youth. Oral presentation at the Chicago LGBT Health & Wellness Conference, Chicago, IL.

About monashattell

Mona Shattell is Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development in the College of Science and Health, and Professor in the School of Nursing at DePaul University. The College of Science and Health at DePaul University is comprised of 8 departments (health sciences, psychology, STEM studies, biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and mathematics), 1 school (nursing), and 4 centers (STEM Center, Quantitative Reasoning Center, Center for Family and Community Services, and the Center for Community Research). The college currently has 150 full-time faculty members, 2700 undergraduate students and 725 graduate students, and $15 million in research funding. In her role as Associate Dean for Research, Dr. Shattell promotes research in all departments, schools, and centers in the college; she enhances the culture and capacity of the college to support scientific inquiry, supports and mentors tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, and promotes student research. In addition to her position as Associate Dean, she also serves as the PI of mental health services research teams and as board member for several community non-profit mental health advocacy organizations. She is Associate Editor of Advances in Nursing Science and Issues in Mental Health Nursing, a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, and the author of more than 100 journal articles and book chapters. She has participated in several fellowship programs: she is a former Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project, which is a media fellowship program that develops thought leaders from traditionally underrepresented groups; she participated in the Sigma Theta Tau International Mentored Leadership Development Program, and post-doctoral K30 Clinical Research Training Program through NHLBI. She is active in a number of professional organizations and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. She is also a member of the American Nurses Association, the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, the Southern Nursing Research Society, Midwest Nursing Research Society, Sigma Theta Tau International, and the International Academy of Nursing Editors. She serves on numerous community boards of mental health-related service and advocacy organizations. Prior to joining the faculty at DePaul University, she was tenured Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She received a PhD in nursing from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, a Master of Science degree in nursing from Syracuse University, and a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, also from Syracuse University.
This entry was posted in LGBTQ youth, Mental Health, Social Support and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Family Support for LGBT Youth

  1. Mickey says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth. This was a very informative piece. Please let us know when this gets published. It’s very valuable research.

  2. Liz says:

    Thanks, Mickey! I appreciate your encouraging words and would be happy to share the paper once we are able to get it out there.

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