Sexual Orientation, Stress, and Mental Health in Teens

Adolescence can be a very challenging time for young people as they cope with physical and social changes. In today's social media focused environment, teens face a myriad of social pressures as they work to develop their personal identity. For teens that identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, or pansexual, the adolescent years can be even more difficult. If you're the parent of a teen struggling with sexual identity, life can present a number of significant challenges.

Adolescence is a critical time as LGBTQIA individuals more actively recognize and disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity. The challenge is amplified as they also face the pressures of dating, heteronormative expectations, lack of acceptance, and sometimes bullying.  Adolescents navigating these issues are know to be at a higher risk for stress, mental health concerns, and suicidality.

Mental Health and Sexual Orientation

A systematic review and meta-analysis recently revealed that, regardless of age and gender, "lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) individuals may be at higher risk of mental disorders than heterosexual people." Among all of the participants studied, LGB individuals were 1.5 times more likely to experience depression and/or an anxiety disorder. In addition, they were twice as likely to attempt suicide compared to heterosexual participants. Those identifying as LGB were also more likely to turn to alcohol and other substances.

So the question becomes: Why are gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are more likely to experience mental health problems? Researchers seem to have discovered the prevalence of  minority stress.

.. stigma, prejudice, and discrimination create a hostile and stressful social environment that causes mental health problems. The model describes stress processes, including the experience of prejudice events, expectations of rejection, hiding and concealing, internalized homophobia, and ameliorative coping processes.
— Ilan H. Meyer

Evidence points to the lack of acceptance and understanding regarding sexual orientation and gender identity as a significant factor in stressful and even hostile interactions with peers, teachers, and adults.

As LGBT teens face social challenges and negative attitudes from society, the innate struggles of adolescence are further complicated leading to the potential development of mental health concerns. Now - a young person is tasked with overcoming the stigma of both challenges.

Research from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health reveals that this 'perfect storm' of stressors can increase the risk of suicide among LGBT teens. Clinicians find that teens struggling with sexual identity are more likely to manifest suicidal thoughts and actions. Signs include:

  • obsession with emotional pain and death

  • withdrawal from family and friends

  • giving away possessions

  • reckless behavior 

  • Increased anger or aggression

  • excessive sleeping or not getting out of bed

The good news is that research has shown that early intervention and support for LGBT individuals can help to reduce their risk of mental health problems. In addition to addressing any mental health symptoms that may be present, a well-trained psychotherapist can help your teen to explore their identity, increase their self-confidence, and navigate challenge coming to grips with their sexual orientation.

If you're looking for help for your teen, you'll want to seek a mental health practitioner who specializes in dealing with the unique concerns of the LGBTQIA community. Consider reaching out to our Mind Body Seven team and connecting with Dr. Cheryl Kornfeld, PsyD.  Dr. Kornfeld is a clinical psychologist specializing in identity formation and life transitions. She provides a safe and supportive therapeutic environment that can help your teen to overcome anxiety and stress as they navigate sexual orientation & gender identity.