It Really Might 'Get Better' for LGBT Teens

A new study lends support to the idea that bullying and depression decrease over time.

In September 2010—spurred by a slew of media reports about LGBT young people committing suicide—sex columnist and gay-rights activist Dan Savage posted a YouTube video with his husband, Terry Miller, directly addressing LGBT teens struggling with bullying. “It gets better,” the couple promised, pointing to their own lives as inspiration.

The mantra soon morphed into its own campaign. Five years later, the roughly 60,000 “It Gets Better” videos—including messages from Barack Obama, Project Runway host Tim Gunn, and Kermit the Frog—have generated an estimated 60 million YouTube views, and Savage has turned the It Gets Better Project into a non-profit organization to support LGBT youth.

Most recently, a study out of Northwestern University has lent more support to Savage’s promise, showing empirically that life really may improve significantly for many LGBT youths in the U.S. as they grow into young adulthood.

For the study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the researchers recruited a racially diverse group of 231 LGBT Chicago-area residents between the ages of 16 and 20. Over three and a half years, the participants periodically completed questionnaires about their mental health and their recent experiences with victimization, including verbal threats, insults, physical and sexual assault, and property damage.

Past research has shown that LGBT young people suffer from higher rates of bullying than their heterosexual peers, as well as disproportionately high rates of depression, suicide, and substance use. But as they grew from adolescence into adulthood, the Northwestern study found, their average levels of reported psychological distress and victimization tended to drop steadily, leading the researchers to posit a connection between declining rates of bullying and improvements in mental health.

“There’s been this whole social movement around sending the message to LGBT youth: ‘Be resilient to it, it will get better as you get older,’” said Brian Mustanski, one of the study’s co-authors and the director of Northwestern’s IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program. “But there hasn’t been a lot of data to support telling young people that.”

The study also reported a less encouraging finding: While any social support the young people received while being bullied tended to reduce their chances of depression, this benefit was usually short-lived. Those who reported having been victimized at one study check-in tended to have the same elevated risk of depression at a subsequent visit, regardless of whether they said they had had support from friends, family or others at the time of the bullying.

Research that tracks LGBT young people over time like this is somewhat rare. It can be highly challenging to recruit and retain them as subjects—in addition to the usual difficulties researchers have in gaining access to schools, many LGBT teens who aren’t yet out fear that participating in a study could expose their sexuality or gender identity. But a recent announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon make similar research a little easier: Starting this year, the agency will recommend that all states include questions about sexual identity in the data they collect for the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which monitors health risk factors among youth nationwide. Up until this point, only 20 states and 19 large urban school districts have asked such questions in surveys to young Americans about their health behaviors.

“We need to know: What is the health of LGBT youth in the country?” said Michelle Birkett, PhD, the lead author of the study Northwestern study and a professor in the university’s department of medical social sciences. “And just by adding an extra variable into these health surveys you’re able to get so much more information about what’s going on.”

But by aligning her findings so closely with the question of whether “it gets better”—the paper’s title even references the phrase—Birkett and her coauthors have set themselves up for some of the same criticisms levied against the YouTube campaign.

“I did sort of think, ‘Oh gosh, why did they have to frame the paper in that way?’” said Stephen Russell, a professor of family studies who researches health risks among LGBT young people at the University of Arizona, who added that he still sees great value in the study. “I realize that [the reference to the It Gets Better project] gets attention to the research. But I think that it’s problematic.”

Specifically, he says, claiming that life gets better on average does not mean it will get better for all, and data on kids in Chicago doesn’t necessarily provide insight into the plight of LGBT kids across the country. (“Yeah, I guess we should have had an asterisk that said, ‘Individual results may vary,’” Savage says in response to such criticism.) The researchers do acknowledge these limitations in the paper, and Birkett says she and her colleagues are currently parsing their data to better understand the different experiences of various subgroups of the young people they studied.

Others caution that the study results shouldn’t prompt LGBT-rights and anti-bullying activists to grow complacent about their mission. “I like to believe that it gets better,” said Gunn, the Project Runway host whose own YouTube video features a frank and moving account of a failed suicide attempt in his teens. “It’s wonderful to receive corroboration. But I hope that people don’t start to relax and think, ‘Oh, I can worry about this tomorrow.’ I believe that the issues at hand are still pervasive and require urgency.”