A 2014 study from the University of Southern California School of Social Work in cooperation with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles found that teens who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual experience unique stressors that put them at greater risk for binge drinking. The study was led by Jeremy Goldbach, an assistant professor at the USC School of Social Work. Goldbach and his team examined data from a nationwide survey of more than 1,200 teens aged 12 to 17. The survey looked at patterns of heavy drinking and how they were influenced by the stress and psychological distress experienced by many teens who identify themselves as sexual minorities. The various stressors and causes of psychological distress examined during this study included internalized homophobia, bullying, limited or nonexistent peer support networks and lack of family support. The researchers also examined the number and variety of people to whom teenagers had come out and how outness influenced patterns of heavy drinking. The results of the study suggested a complicated, almost circular series of relationships among different stress factors unique to LGB youth. On one hand, the researchers found that victimization and internalized shame and homophobia were associated with higher rates of problematic binge drinking. Teens who had come out to more people were less likely to have internalized shame and homophobia. However, teens who had come out to a wider circle of people were also more likely to engage in binge drinking.
Different Levels of Outness Bring Different Stressors
These results suggest that there are different stressors that LGB teens experience during different stages of revealing their sexual identity and that all of them are potential risk factors for psychological distress and binge drinking. Teens with lower levels of outness were more likely to be suffering from internalized homophobia and to be more uncomfortable with their sexual identity. They may also be fearful of the reactions of their parents, other adults and their peers when they reveal their sexual identity. Distress from these various fears and emotions can make them more likely to engage in heavy drinking. In contrast, teens who have come out to a large number of people are more likely to be personally comfortable and confident with their sexual identity. However, being open about their sexual identity can also make them more likely to experience bullying and other forms of victimization. In addition, gay teens may find themselves exposed to more heavy drinking during social situations, since alcohol use is common in the gay community.
Few Resources Devoted to Studying LGB Substance Use
The USC study is not the first to show that LGB teens are at greater risk for both alcohol abuse as well as drug abuse. However, research concerning sexual minorities makes up only a tiny portion of the funding provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Goldbach notes that less than 0.5 percent of NIH funding has been dedicated to issues concerning the LGB population. Furthermore, the majority of past studies have been devoted to research on the risk of HIV/AIDS. The fact that the LGB population, as well as people who identify as transgender or prefer the broader term queer, is particularly vulnerable to substance use issues highlights the importance of devoting more resources to the work of understanding these issues. Without these additional resources, we will not make any progress in lessening the risk of substance abuse and related issues such as depression, anxiety and suicide risk among members of the LGBTQ community.