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.”