Gay, Lesbian Teens at Higher Risk for Depression

Posted on July 13th, 2013
Posted in Teens

From creating an identity to managing relationships with friends, adolescence is a time of turmoil for many people. However, it can be especially challenging for teenagers who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT). In some youth, the stress and anxiety that can result from living in a world that is not always accepting can trigger serious symptoms of depression.

GLBT Youth and Depression

Although once considered otherwise by the psychiatric community, homosexuality is not a mental health condition. These non-traditional orientations – homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender identification – do not cause depression. In fact, many GLBT youth are able to live a normal adolescence, especially when they’re supported in a safe environment and feel the love and acceptance of family, caregivers, and friends.

However, identifying as GLBT can bring challenges that make life very difficult. For example, some teenagers experience rejection from family or other loved ones regarding their sexual identity. A study of young adults (ages 21-25) found that those who said they experienced high levels of rejection from loved ones during adolescence were about six times more likely to have depression and more than eight times more likely to have attempted suicide.

Bullying often plays a role in depression among GLBT teens, too. One study found that teenagers were more prone to depression if they were bullied because peers thought they were gay. Other non-heterosexual and transgender teens may experience depression because of violence or the fear of it. In one study, 61% of GLBT adolescents reported they felt unsafe or uncomfortable as a result of their orientation.

Rejection, bullying, and violence are all factors that contribute to a higher risk for mental health disorders – and the research supporting that has been consistent. For instance, an analysis of 18 studies confirmed overwhelmingly that gay and lesbian teenagers had higher rates of depression than their heterosexual peers.

Why Depression Help Is Critical

Clinical depression is a serious mental health condition that is more than just feeling “blue” or “down in the dumps.” In depression, it’s believed that important brain chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, that regulate mood are out of balance. Depressed teenagers may find it hard to focus on schoolwork or make decisions, lose interest in activities they once loved, and experience sleep disturbances. The results of these and other symptoms can range from dropping grades to the inability to maintain important relationships, like those with family and friends.

Depression in GLBT teens can have more serious consequences as well. Some may turn to substance abuse to try to relieve symptoms of depression. While that initial high can seem to make symptoms better, in reality, drugs and alcohol make symptoms worse. In fact, at least one study suggests that gay, lesbian and bisexual youth have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than heterosexual teens. It’s possible that this group’s overall increased substance abuse could indicate that some of these teens are also dealing with depression.

Non-heterosexual teenagers who live with depression also face an increased risk of suicide. Gay and lesbian teens have higher rates of suicidal thoughts and actions than heterosexuals. This makes finding help for depression that much more critical. Don’t wait until your teenage child hits rock bottom, because that rock bottom could be suicide.

How to Help

Seek therapy for your teen’s depression. If you suspect your GLBT teen is struggling with depression, reach out for help. Clinical depression is a mental health condition that requires professional treatment. While it may resolve on its own, that’s not something you can count on. Don’t assume that your teen will “grow out of it” or “snap out of it.” A mental health professional can evaluate your child and recommend a treatment plan that will help relieve symptoms and improve coping skills.

Psychotherapy is typically the first order of treatment for depression. A skilled therapist can help your child learn to identify the root causes of and understand the negative emotions he or she is experiencing.  Therapy will also help your teenager reframe those negative emotions in a way that helps to prevent or reduce depression symptoms. During therapy, your teen will also learn how to improve relationships that may play a role in depression, as well as how to set healthy boundaries with family and friends.

If your teen has mild to moderate depression, therapy may be enough to alleviate symptoms. However, if depression is severe or if psychotherapy isn’t working, your teen may also benefit from antidepressant medication. Antidepressants target those mood-regulating brain chemicals, bringing them back into balance.  These drugs should always be used with caution and closely monitored. There are side effects linked to antidepressant use in teenagers – including the possibility of an increase in suicidal thoughts.  This is why it’s best to work with a specialist, preferably a child psychiatrist, rather than a family physician or pediatrician when it comes to psychiatric medications for your teen.

Consider alternative treatments to support conventional therapy. While therapy offers the best chance for achieving mental health wellness, complementary therapies may help the process. Since stress and anxiety feed into clinical depression, stress-relief techniques can relieve or head-off symptoms.  Both yoga and meditation – when practiced regularly – can help reduce stress and anxiety. Other strategies may include biofeedback, which trains people to control automatic physiological stress reactions, and progressive muscle relaxation, which is used to reduce tension.   Regular aerobic exercise – such as running, swimming laps, or biking – is just as effective for depression as antidepressant medication – and without the potentially dangerous side effects.  It also helps improve self-confidence and self-esteem.

Consider your behavior. Some parents take longer to come to terms with their teenager’s non-traditional sexual identity than others. If you’re having a hard time with the situation, talk with a family therapist. He or she can educate you about sexual orientation and gender issues as well as help you learn to avoid the rejecting behaviors that negatively impact your teenager’s emotional well-being.

Create a positive environment. Living in a positive environment can cut the rate of suicide in gay and bisexual youth by one-quarter [7]. Create an environment that nurtures your teen by educating other family members to dispel myths and misperceptions; initiate school anti-bullying policies that specifically protect GLBT youth; and join or create gay-straight alliance groups in your teen’s school or church.

Find support for your teenager. Connecting with other GLBT teens can go a long way toward helping your teenager feel less isolated and alone. Look for local teen gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups where members offer fellowship and support to each other. Support groups provide teenagers with a safe outlet that allows them to express their emotions and struggles without fear of being judged on orientation or behavior.

Depression can be a debilitating mental health disorder that sidetracks your teenager’s life before it has a chance to get started. If you have a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender teen experiencing depression symptoms, seek help from a mental health professional so your child can live a happier life.

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