A government survey of high school students found teenagers who identify themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual are more likely to experience depression, bullying, and other types of violence when compared to their heterosexual peers. The information was obtained after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked questions regarding sexual identity on its biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
The survey, which helps the agency collect information on the health of adolescents, found roughly eight percent of teenagers define themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The questionnaire involved 15,600 high school students ranging in ages from 14 to 17.
According to the results, these teenagers were three times more likely to be raped than straight students. Nearly 33 percent of them were bullied at school, and two times as likely to be threatened or injured with a weapon than heterosexual students. Many consistently missed class due to fear of violence and concern for safety.
“I found the numbers heartbreaking,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention at the CDC. “Many would find these levels of physical and sexual violence unacceptable and something we should act on quickly.”
Just as alarming, four-out-of-ten indicated they had considered committing suicide, and almost one-third made an attempt before completing the survey. The amount of illegal drug use is also extremely high among these teenagers. Six percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens have used heroin compared to 1.3 percent of straight adolescents.
While the agency asks students about 100 different health behaviors on the survey, two new questions were added in 2015. One question asked teenagers how they categorize themselves sexually. The other question was designed to find out whom they had “sexual contact” with and left it open for the teenager to define.
While the nationwide debate over transgender bathrooms in schools continues to rage, the survey did not provide an option for teenagers to classify themselves as transgender. For the 2017 survey, the CDC plans to have a question related to transgender identity so these teens will be included in the figures.
The results of last year’s questionnaire revealing the percentage of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers are in line with similar estimates from state and local surveys. However, the CDC’s survey creates a national database of students who identify as a sexual minority.
As the collected data reveals a higher risk of violence and suicide among these teens, the obvious response is the establishment of more comprehensive intervention and prevention programs, said Dr. Debra Houry, a physician with the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. She points to successful support programs like Green Dot, which provides assistance to victims of bullying, as a model for future programs. Clearly, gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents need greater access to mental health care as well as increased support from families, schools, and communities, she added.
While the survey shows gay, lesbian, and bisexual students experience higher rates of violence and depression, it could not ascertain why these teenagers are at such risk. Yet, Dr. Elizabeth Miller at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh thinks the reason is the enduring negative perception of the lifestyle and many teens’ aversion to talking about sex.
“The intensity of homophobic attitudes and acceptance of gay-related victimization, as well as the ongoing silence around adolescent sexuality, marginalizes a whole group of young people.”
As peers quietly ostracize this group, they are more prone to “exploitive and violent relationships,” she explained. Also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Dr. Miller believes it is crucial for young people to open up and talk about their feelings, sexuality, and relationships as early as possible.
The CDC survey did not provide perfect results. When about asked to identify their sexuality, 3.2 percent of the teenagers marked “not sure.” When asked about “sexual contact” with people of the same sex or with both sexes, 2.8 percent said they only had sex with partners of the opposite sex, but described themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The data also did not include any students who dropped out of school or who were otherwise not attending.
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