Gay, lesbian, bisexual and ‘mostly heterosexual’ young adults have higher risk of PTSD than heterosexuals

June 14, 2012 — Higher prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating mental illness that can have life-long negative consequences, has been found in young adult gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and “mostly heterosexuals” compared with completely heterosexuals at considerably younger ages than previously identified, according to a new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Boston Children’s Hospital researchers. The researchers found higher symptoms of PTSD in sexual minorities compared with heterosexuals in individuals in their early 20s.

The new study was published online June 14, 2012 in the American Journal of Public HealthRead the abstract.

“We looked at a group of people who are at the cusp of adulthood and found much higher levels of PTSD in sexual orientation minorities compared with heterosexuals. We found that differences in PTSD by sexual orientation already exist by age 22. This is a critical point at which young adults are trying to finish college, establish careers, get jobs, maintain relationships, and establish a family,” said lead author Andrea Roberts, research associate in HSPH’s Department of Society, Human Development, and Health. Previous studies by Roberts and her colleagues identified more PTSD symptoms in a group of sexual minorities aged 40-60. Gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, “mostly heterosexuals,” and heterosexuals who have ever had a same-sex sex partner were found to be one-and-a-half to two times as likely to experience violent events, especially in childhood, than the general population and have double the risk of experiencing PTSD as a consequence. (See 2010 HSPH press release.)

Traumatic events like active combat, childhood maltreatment, interpersonal violence, or unexpected death of a loved one can lead to PTSD, which is characterized by distressing memories of the traumatic event, avoidance of objects, places, or people associated with the event, emotional numbing, and an increased sense of vigilance. PTSD can lead to health issues like obesity and heart disease, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, teen pregnancy, school dropout, and difficulties with relationships and employment.

Previous studies by the team showed gender-nonconforming children to be highly prone to abuse from parents and other adults and bullying by peers—stresses that help put them at higher risk to develop PTSD than heterosexuals. (See 2012 HSPH press release.)

The researchers analyzed 2007 data on 9,784 participants—more than 6,000 women and more than 3,600 men ages 19 to 27 years, enrolled in the Growing Up Today Study. The participants reported physical, psychological, and sexual abuse that they experienced as children or teens.

The researchers found sexual minorities had a 1.6 times to nearly 4 times higher risk of PTSD than heterosexuals in the study. Child abuse victimization accounted for one-third to one-half of the increased risk of PTSD in sexual minorities.

One in seven participants in this study identified themselves as “mostly heterosexual.” Most studies classify people as gay, straight, or bisexual. “There are a lot of people who don’t completely identify as straight or as gay or bisexual who are at elevated risk for PTSD and abuse as children,” Roberts said. She suggested that future studies should include this category in order to learn more about this group.

“Our findings show just how important it is for parents to provide a loving and supportive home for all their children, gay and straight. All of us have a responsibility to help parents find the right ways to support their sexual minority daughters and sons,” said senior author S. Bryn Austin, associate professor in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH. “The children are counting on us.”

–Marge Dwyer