This 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.
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.