Being a teenager is tough. But teens who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) -- as well as those who are still coming to terms with their sexuality -- often have it much tougher still.
Bullying, teasing, harassment, and sometimes physical violence are not uncommon parts of an LGBT teen's daily life at school. In 2009, eight out of 10 LGBT students said they had been verbally harassed at school. In the same survey, nearly half of LGBT students reported that they had been physically harassed that year. Not surprisingly, then, most LGBT students said they don’t feel safe at school.
Some teens manage to thrive regardless of the troubles they face at school. But many do not. The stress of dealing with discrimination, with peers who treat them poorly, and with schools that don’t provide adequate means of support can lead to depression, anxiety, and, in extreme cases, to suicide.
"Trouble with coping can manifest in a variety of ways," says psychiatrist Edgardo Menvielle, MD, MSHS, who directs the Gender and Sexuality Development Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"Being a member of a group that is marginalized puts a lot of pressure on a teenager," Menvielle continues, "and we know that people who experience abuse in childhood, from family or peers, are more likely to have problems as adults, such as suicide, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem."
Greater Risk of Unhealthy Behaviors
The kind of pressure or stress that LGBT teens often experience does not only affect how they feel. It may also affect how they behave.
A CDC report issued in June 2011 shows that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are far more likely than heterosexual teens to binge drink, smoke, take drugs, practice unsafe sex, have suicidal thoughts, and take part in other activities that put their health at risk.
The report does not go into the reasons why the differences are so great. But Laura Kann, PhD, who headed the CDC's report, says feeling unaccepted probably plays a big role.
"Clearly, stigma and family approval are involved," says Kann says. "We don't document it here but you can't ignore that it is out there."
Many smaller studies have reported similar rates of risky behaviors among gay teens, but the CDC report was the first to do so on such a large scale. It looked at teens from seven states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin - and from six large urban school districts, including San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York.
Gay teens were more likely than hetero teens to participate in seven out of the 10 categories of risky behavior that the CDC studied.
"What was so noteworthy was that the results were so consistent across so many cities and states," Kann says. "While the results themselves were not surprising, it's concerning to see these patterns repeated at location after location."
Psychologist Anthony R. D'Augelli, PhD, who has written extensively on teen LGBT issues, says that he too was unsurprised by the report. Among LGBT teens, "there’s a higher prevalence of all kinds of risky behaviors, you name it," says D'Augelli, a professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University.
He points to missing school, which is not uncommon among teens who feel threatened and/or unwelcome. "School absences build up, then they don't do well on tests, and grades go down," he says.
Sometimes, those absences become permanent. "Some kids cope by dropping out of school and getting a GED," Menvielle says.
That does not have to be you.
Finding Support Makes All the Difference
Both Menvielle and D'Augelli stress the importance of finding a support network, whether that’s friends, family, a sympathetic teacher or guidance counselor, or the Internet.
"Kids need to feel like they are in a very supportive environment," D'Augelli says. "They should not have to feel they have to hide from themselves and from their peers and families."
Your school might already have a support network available. Gay-straight alliances (GSAs), for example, are groups that promote understanding and awareness. According to the CDC, students at schools with active GSAs are less likely to feel threatened or have suicidal thoughts.
"If there are GSAs in school, teens feel supported," Menvielle says. "Even if they don't use them, knowing they exist is important. If kids do not experience support, they are going to be at higher risk for a variety of things, including suicide and depression."
Unfortunately, D'Aguelli says, there are still plenty of areas where schools do not actively support LGBT students. And openly gay teachers, who could be both important resources as well as potential role models, are still relatively uncommon.
"For some people, especially in more isolated and conservative areas, the Internet may be the only option," D'Augelli says. "There are great web sites that are affirming and that provide excellent information, though admittedly it may not help you in math class in the middle of the day or while waiting at the bus stop."
Talk to Your Parents
Menvielle stresses the need to get your parents involved, especially if you are being actively harassed or intimidated.
"Parents need to intervene," he says. "Parents have to be advocates on behalf of their children."
It may be hard to talk with your parents, especially if you are worried that they will react negatively. But D'Augelli says that there is little evidence of parents rejecting their children because of their sexuality; in fact, he says, these days that conversation may be easier than in years past.
"An increasing number of adults know more gay people, and that makes a huge difference in how they react to gay people," he says. "When a son or daughter comes out, they don't assume that they are strange or abnormal. Instead, they see perfectly bright, acceptable people."
Better Times to Come
As tough a time as you may be having as you come to terms with your sexuality, know that life won’t always be so difficult. That’s the message that Menvielle says that teenagers need to understand.
"They are aware they are different, they are under pressure -- it's a very rough time of life," he says. "The teen years are the toughest, so hold on to the idea that things get better."