Throughout Seth Walsh’s life, his peers taunted, ridiculed, and teased him because of his mannerisms and style of dressing. Eventually, the insults became too much, and Seth dropped out of school to receive his education at home.
But still, the teasing continued – online, over the phone, and in person. In September of 2010, openly gay 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, Calif. hanged himself in his backyard.
In the end, it was anti-gay bullying that pushed this teenager to take his own life.
Unfortunately, Seth's story is becoming more and more common among gay teenagers who spiral into depression because of the teasing and rejection of others.
Risk Factors for Depression in Gay Teenagers
Gay teenagers not only face the normal physical and emotional stresses of adolescence, but must also contend with developing their sexual identities in a potentially hostile environment.
While straight teenagers also work to develop sexual identities, their peers are generally more accepting of their choices. But gay teenagers often must deal with rejection and teasing because of their sexual orientations.
While society has generally grown more tolerant of homosexuality, gay teenagers still face frequent discrimination and bullying, according to “Victimization of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth in a Community Setting.”
The article, published in The Journal of Community Psychology, examined how frequently gay teenagers experienced rejection, victimization, and other stressors in their lives.
Researchers Anthony R. D'Augelli and Neil W. Pilkington sampled 194 gay teenagers and surveyed how often they were verbally insulted, physically assaulted, and how their homosexuality affected their family and peer relationships. Results from the study showed 80% of the teens experienced verbal insults because peers knew or thought the teens were gay, while a further 44% experienced physical assault. Additionally, 43% of males and 54% of females said they had lost at least one friend after disclosing their sexuality.
Even though these teens are victimized, they are often fearful to seek help or report bullying because it would reveal their sexual orientations. Their parents might not accept a homosexual lifestyle, and feel unsympathetic, and even might blame the teenager for the bullying. Consider a 14-year-old boy who is a freshman in high school. The boy experiences the same stresses about tests and homework as the other students, but he keeps his biggest source of his stress hidden from his peers, family members, and teachers.
From a young age, the teen knew he was attracted to other boys. Until high school though, he never experienced the kind of bullying he now faces. Now, walking the halls, he's often called a “sissy,” “girly-boy,” and other more vulgar anti-gay slurs. Soon, the boy wonders if something is wrong with him. He wonders why the other boys in class won't accept him, and if he'll ever be “normal” in their eyes.
He literally has no one to turn to. He hasn't told his parents or close friends his secret, and is afraid that they'll reject him just as his other peers have. The worst part is that the harassment is getting worse, and he isn't sure how to handle the situation anymore. Fearing stigmatization, the boy in the example felt forced to conceal his homosexuality from potential support groups like friends, counselors, and family members. But sometimes, by “coming out” to these groups, some gay teenagers find the help they need to combat negative experiences in high school.
Facts for Families: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Adolescents
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry lists several concerns of gay teenagers as they develop sexual identities.
Some of these include:
- Feeling alienated from peers
- Feelings of guilt stemming from their orientations
- Worrying about how their parents will respond
- Experiencing teasing and bullying from peers
- Discrimination from clubs or sports
- Experiencing rejection from friends.
Source: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Coming out is one of the most stressful periods in a gay teen's life.
In a best-case scenario, the teen's parents might have suspected their teen's sexual orientation, and are happy and accepting of the declaration. But in the worst case, the teen's parents might cut off financial support, reject the teen, and kick him or her out of the household.
In “Homophobic Teasing, Psychological Outcomes, and Sexual Orientation Among High School Students: What Influence Do Parents and Schools Have?” published in The School Psychology Review, anti-gay teasing was found to have negative mental health outcomes in gay teenagers who lack supportive school and home environments. Researchers Dorothy L. Esperage and others examined 13,921 high school teenagers, of whom 932 were “questioning” their sexuality, and an additional 1,065 identified themselves as homosexuals.
While all teenagers will experience negative outcomes when parents are unsupportive, for gay teenagers, this effect can be particularly strong, leading to greater instances of depression. The study stated that questioning and openly homosexual students were more likely to report depression, suicide attempts, and drug use when their parents rejected their sexuality.
But gay students who received support were less likely to report these negative outcomes, even if they experienced victimization in school environments. Family acceptance of homosexuality led to higher self-esteem, more support against victimization, and reduced depression among the participants. Since each family scenario differs on a case-by-case basis, the teen should decide if coming out to his or her parents would cause more harm than good. If so, the teen must identify individuals in the teen's life who will be accepting and supportive of the teen's decision to come out. For some teenagers, this might be an aunt, uncle, or sibling, while others find support in school counselors or close friends.
Advice for Parents During a Teen's “Coming Out” Period
When a teenager comes out to a family, there are several things they can do to ensure a supportive and healthy outcome for the revelation.
- Sit down with the teen and discuss the teen's sexuality;
- Accept the teen's homosexuality;
- Do not appear upset with the teen, even if the teen's homosexuality makes you uncomfortable;
- Defend the teen against homosexual attacks;
- Encourage the teen to participate in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) events and clubs
- Meet with a gay adult to discuss difficulties he or she experienced in adolescence to gain a better understanding of the hardships the teen might feel;
- Do not attempt to change the teen's sexual orientation through counseling or persuasion, you will only drive him or her away.
Sources: The Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, Advocatesforyouth.org, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
Issues with Lack of Support
Gay teenagers who feel they can't find any support and who face constant bullying and teasing begin to experience mental health problems, often leading to depression – and in dire cases – suicide. According to “Negative Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults,” published in Pediatrics, a family's reaction to the disclosure of their teen's sexuality has far-reaching effects.
Researchers Caitlin Ryan and others examined 224 LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) young adults and asked them questions about how their families reacted when they disclosed their homosexuality during adolescence. The study asked questions such as: “Between the ages of 13 and 19, how often did your parents blame you for any anti-gay mistreatment you experienced?”
From these questions, Ryan measured how rejection during the teen years leads to future mental suffering, finding that young adults rejected by their families were 8.4 times more likely to report a suicide attempt, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use drugs. Unfortunately, the threat of suicide is significant for gay teens, even among those who are accepted by their parents. For these teens, the bullying and taunting become too much to handle, and they feel they only have one choice left.
Gay Teenagers and Suicide
In the study “The Social Environment and Suicide Attempts in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth,” published in Pediatrics, 31,852 11th graders were surveyed about their social environments, sexual identity, and suicide attempts.
Researcher Mark L. Hatzenbuehler found that among the sample, 21.5% of gay teenagers attempted suicide within the last 12 months, compared to 4.2% of heterosexual teenagers.
Hatzenbuehler cites a poor social environment at home and at school to be more predictive of suicide attempts for gay adolescents, and suggests more research must be accomplished for suicide prevention methods with gay teens.
Help for Gay Teenagers
While gay teenagers still face discrimination on a near-daily basis, fortunately, society as a whole seems to be becoming more accommodating of members of the LGBT community. On June 24, 2011, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law the right for gay couples to marry.
While this is only a small step toward a more open and accepting environment for gay people, it signals a shift in society's view of homosexuality. But still, students need help and counseling to deal with the bullying and teasing they face as gay teenagers.
Gay teenagers require advice and care to help deal with the depression, and anxiety many experience from anti-gay bullying and confusion over sexual identity. Unfortunately, some teenagers feel unable to turn to their parents or friends for this support fearing rejection and isolation.
To meet this need, school counselors and therapists provide an accepting and open environment for teenagers to explore their fears, concerns, and questions about their sexual orientations. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, some counselors work with their teenage clients to redevelop attitudes and gain strength to combat harassment.
In “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth,” published in Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, researchers outline the concerns of LGBT students and how counselors help to foster positive thoughts about their sexualities.
In the article, researchers Trevor A. Hart and colleagues describe a version of cognitive behavioral therapy combined with exposure therapy to defeat gay teenage depression.
Hart says that depression often rises in gay teenagers because of negative self-thoughts they have about homosexuality in addition to social isolation. Therapists work with gay teenagers to explore their thoughts about homosexuality.
Frequently, a teen coming to terms with his or her sexual orientation might have negative preconceived notions of homosexual lifestyles. For example, a teen might think, “Gay and lesbian people never find monogamous partners,” or “Because I am gay, I am defective in some way.”
Working with the teen, the therapist re-examines these beliefs, and introduces a form of exposure therapy. The therapist might invite a gay adult to join the counseling session to show the teen that there is nothing wrong about identifying as a homosexual.
The gay adult is often a successful and productive member of society, and shows the teens that they too can grow up successful. The adult challenges the stereotypes the gay adolescent might have developed about gay lifestyles, and the teen restructures his or her view of homosexual adults.
Additionally, because the teen might lack a support group in his or her life, group counseling is often used as well. By introducing the teenager to a supportive group of like-minded teens, he or she is able to speak candidly with the other teens.
Hart concludes the study by stating that counselors must familiarize themselves with the problems homosexual teenagers experience. Unfortunately, Hart says, there are few studies that accurately and effectively deal with these concerns.
Hart urges students who wish to work as counselors for homosexual teens to study human sexuality courses in addition to their psychology courses.