Is LGBT Persons’ Mental Health Improving?| National Catholic Register

COMMENTARY: The social changes in the past 30 years have not actually improved the mental health of the people who were supposed to be helped.

The social acceptance of homosexual behavior has greatly increased over the past 30 years. In that time, the United States has changed the definition of marriage, the structures of the military, the curriculum of our public schools and the objectives of our foreign policy.

Many people supported these changes because they thought this greater social acceptance would make self-identified gays and lesbians feel better. I propose that we stop and ask: Have these changes actually improved the mental health of the people who were supposed to be helped?

No serious researcher in this arena denies that the rates of psychological distress are higher for self-described gay men and lesbian women than for everyone else. The measures that have been studied include substance abuse disorders, affective disorders, anxiety disorders, mood disorders, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies. Researchers across the board agree on these basic facts. The only question is why.

One common explanation for the poorer mental health of non-heterosexuals is called the “minority stress theory.” Unjust discrimination explains the differences between the mental health of people who are exclusively heterosexual and everyone else.

Asking individuals about their personal experiences with various forms of discrimination does indeed show a correlation with their mental health. Not surprisingly, children who get bullied or beaten are more likely to be depressed than children who are not. In this sense, we can say that discrimination or mistreatment accounts for some differences in mental illness or psychological distress.

But measures like these do not account for all the differences. The problem for the minority stress theory arises when we ask questions designed to get at the picture for society as a whole.

Is it true that the mental health of gay men and lesbian women is better in societies that are more accepting of them? We can look across societies or at the same society over time.

A team of researchers from the Netherlands examined measures of mental health, including anxiety disorder, phobias, substance abuse, depression and bipolar disorder. The team published a study in 2001 based on data collected in 1996. They concluded:

“Psychiatric disorders were more prevalent among homosexually active people compared with heterosexually active people. Homosexual men had a higher 12-month prevalence of mood disorders and anxiety disorders than heterosexual men. Homosexual women had a higher 12-month prevalence of substance use disorders than heterosexual women. … More homosexual than heterosexual persons had 2 or more disorders during their lifetimes.”

The same team performed the same analysis on data gathered in interviews during 2007- 2009 and published it in 2014. Here is their conclusion from the second study which compared the two studies:

“Homosexually active persons and persons with same-sex attraction reported a higher prevalence of disorders than heterosexual persons. Comparing these results with a previous study, showed that no significant changes over time have occurred in the pattern of health disparities.”

The Netherlands is widely agreed to be one of the most “gay-friendly” countries on earth: It redefined marriage in 2001, for instance. Yet the sad results of higher levels of psychological distress are found, even in the Netherlands, with no substantial changes after 10 years.

Now consider this 2022 study of sexual orientation fluidity among women, conducted in Australia, also considered a “gay-friendly” country. Using a measure of overall psychological distress, the study asked whether a woman’s changes in self-identified orientation was correlated with changes in her levels of distress. The conclusion:

“We found no evidence of a universal association between sexual identity change and psychological distress. Instead, psychological distress was elevated when women changed their identity away from the heterosexual norm and lowered when they changed their identity toward it.”

This conclusion is broadly consistent with the enduring teaching of the Church that heterosexuality is, dare we say it, normative.

But by far the saddest study I have encountered is an analysis conducted by pro-gay researchers, using data from the pro-gay Williams Institute housed at UCLA. The “Generations Study” delineates different “generations,” who had different “defining” moments in their social development. They label the “Pride Cohort” for whom the Stonewall Riot was the defining event, as those born between 1956 and 1963 who were between 52-59 years old at the time of the survey.

The “Visibility Cohort” was born between 1974 and 1981. HIV-AIDS was the defining event of their generation. Finally, the youngest generation was born between 1990 and 1997. The researchers refer to them as the “Equality Cohort.” The redefinition of marriage was the defining issue of their time.

The study examines measures of suicidality and psychological distress among men and women. These charts illustrate their results. The researchers comment:

“Our findings are clearly inconsistent with the (minority stress) hypothesis. We started our hypothesis from a theoretical perspective that suggests that as social conditions improve, exposure to minority stressors and mental health problems would decrease. … Analysis of stress exposure and mental health suggests little distinction in the experience of minority stress across cohorts, indicating no discernable improvement in minority stress and health of sexual minorities.”

Statistics on suicide attempts.
Statistics on suicide attempts.

This body of evidence is consistent with the belief that the sex of the body really is important. Some ideas about our sexed bodies are “disordered:” Incorrect ideas lead us to do things that cause personal unhappiness and social problems. This in turn places limitations on our ability to socially reengineer society. We were told that making society more supportive of LGBT ideology would result in improved mental health for LGBT-identified people. As of now, there is zero evidence for this claim.

Psychological distress.
Psychological distress.

I hasten to add that our ideas about homosexuality are not the only ideas about our sexed bodies that are disordered in the sense I’ve described. Our society has institutionalized ideas about non-marital sex and child-bearing, the permanence of marriage and many other things at odds with the ancient teachings of Christianity. And, we have plenty of evidence that these wrong ideas also hurt people. We can and should challenge these faulty ideas whenever we can.