While for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teens, the amount of bullying and harassment experienced does get better, it does not get better for all — according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health.
The researchers found that discrimination, harassment, and assault of LGBT adolescents was often severe and ongoing, leading to lasting mental health problems such as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“With bullying, I think people often assume ‘that’s just kids teasing kids,’ and that’s not true,” said Brian Mustanski, PhD, from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Northwestern Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health, in a statement. “If these incidents, which might include physical and sexual assaults, weren’t happening in schools, people would be calling the police. These are criminal offenses.”
In order to study bullying and harassment of LGBT youths, Dr Mustanski and colleagues recruited 248 LGBT adolescents from the Chicago area and followed them in seven waves of data collection over four years beginning in 2007. The mean age of the participants was 18.7 years, and 54.7% of the participants were black. Depression and were measured using structured psychiatric interviews.
The researchers found that 65.4% of the participants experienced low, decreasing victimization over the course of the study, and 19.2% experienced high, decreasing levels of victimization.
However, 10.3% of the participants experienced moderate victimization that increased, and 5.1% experienced high levels of consistent victimization.
Those who experienced moderate, increasing victimization and those who experienced high, consistent victimization were at higher risk for depression than the other groups. Those who experienced moderate, increasing victimization, those who experienced high, consistent victimization, and those who experienced high, decreasing victimization were at a higher risk for PTSD than those who experienced low levels of decreasing victimization.
“You can’t equate someone giving you a dirty look with someone physically assaulting you,” Dr Mustanski said. “Victimizations that are more severe are going to have bigger effects. We scored them in a way that represented that, and we saw they had a profound effect on mental health rates over time.”
The researchers also found that girls were more likely to be victimized less over time than boys. Boys experienced more physical and verbal assault than did girls.
“We were happy to see that for most kids, the levels of victimization were lower overall or decreasing over time. But we were struck by how severe it was for some of these kids who were getting highly victimized over their 4 years of high school,” Mustanski said. “If that’s your experience for several years of high school, you can imagine how scarring that would be.”
Dr Mustanski notes that while the majority of targeted LGBT youths are doing well and are “resilient,” something drastic needs to be done for those getting severely victimized.
The researchers hope that these findings will help schools see the patterns of LGBT bullying so they can help prevent it with policies and programs, and help provide coping mechanisms for those being targeted.
Mustanski B, Andrews R, and Puckett JA. The Effects of Cumulative Victimization on Mental Health Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Adolescents and Young Adults. Am J Public Health. 2016; doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302976.