from Clinical/Therapeutic Issues
The study, "Sexual orientation and mental health in a birth cohort of young adults," was published in Psychological Medicine, (2005, 35, 971-981) from Cambridge University Press.
The researchers designed the study to discover the relationship between sexual orientation and mental health in a birth cohort of young men and women between the ages of 21-26.
The first aim of the study was to develop "an empirically based classification of sexual orientation" based upon sexual behavior, stated sexual preference, and sexual attraction. The second aim was to "extend and confirm previous research on this cohort showing that young people reporting gay, lesbian, and bisexual orientation were at increased risks of mental health problems."
The study included a Composite International Diagnostic Interview to determine the following disorders in young gays: major depression, anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, alcohol dependence, cannabis and other illicit drug dependence, and more.
The researchers also collected information about the childhood of each gay person. One category was childhood sexual abuse. This included non-contact abuse to incidents of oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. Of those surveyed, 11.9% indicated they had experienced some form of sexual abuse.
In addition, 13.1% reported incidences of parental criminality; and 24.2% indicated a parental history of illicit drug abuse.
In comparing the mental health of "exclusively heterosexual" and "predominantly homosexual," young adults, researchers discovered that gay males experienced major depression: 71.4% compared to 14.5% for heterosexual males; illicit drug dependence: heterosexual: 11.1%; homosexual: 42.9%; suicidal ideation: heterosexual: 10.9%; 71.4% for homosexual males; suicide attempts among heterosexuals: 1.6%; 28.6% among homosexual males.
The research team noted that their findings may "reflect the effects of social prejudices, homophobic attitudes, victimization and harassment in increasing the vulnerability of bisexual, gay and lesbian young people to mental health problems."
They also noted, however, that there is a possibility that their conclusions are incorrect due to measurement errors; or that there is reverse causality involved. An individual prone to mental health problems may be more likely to engage in gay behaviors; or there is "the possibility that lifestyle choices made by young people of non-heterosexual orientation place them at greater risks of adverse life events, stresses and similar factors that may increase risks of mental health problems."
New Zealand NARTH Member Responds
Dr. Neil Whitehead, author of My Genes Made Me Do It, has reviewed this study and surveys the results of three previous papers on this subject. He observes:
This paper confirms that the mental health risk for men with same-sex attraction is about five times that of heterosexual norms and [homosexual] women's risk is nearly twice as high.
This follows a cluster of three papers around the turn of the century which affirmed the same thing. One of those three was a New Zealand paper on the same group of 1,000 children followed from birth and by the same study group, but at age 21 rather than 26 for the present paper.
The authors of this current paper allowed for other social and family factors such as change of parents and childhood physical or sexual abuse, parental drug use and novelty seeking, but the effect remained. This means that the result was not chance - it has persisted in the study group from ages 21 to 26. The authors extended this finding to say that even a small amount of same-sex attraction (SSA) contributes to a significantly greater mental health risk.
Mental health factors studied were major depression, anxiety disorder, alcohol dependence, illicit drug dependence, suicidal ideas, and attempts.
This mental health effect exists in spite of the work of Dickson, et al. ("Same sex attraction in a birth cohort: prevalence and persistence in early childhood," Social Science & Medicine, 56:1607-1615, 2003) which (apart from a fascinating documented account of changes in type of sexual attraction between ages 21-26) found that same-sex contact between two men was regarded as always or mostly wrong by 36.3% of men and 22.2% of women, compared with 62.1% of men and 48.9% in the UK and 70.7% of men and 66.8% of women in the US. This makes New Zealand extraordinarily liberal in its attitudes, but the health effect is very similar to that in the US, suggesting social prejudice has little to do with the poorer mental health.
In spite of this, the authors suggest social prejudice may be to blame, but also wonder if young people with psychiatric disorders are somehow more prone to same-sex attraction, or alternatively that young people with same-sex attraction make lifestyle choices which "place them at greater risks of adverse life events, stresses and similar factors that may increase risks of mental health problems."
This is worth following up, although it cannot be a universal factor. If it were a universal factor all those with major depression would also have SSA. It could be an important factor for a few. Some people exist with both SSA and heterosexual attraction. They find that when they are depressed that SSA predominates; when they are filled with well-being, opposite sex attraction predominates.