The suicide of Billy Lucas and other teens who were harassed for being gay has put the spotlight on bullying, but support at home may be the largest single factor in protecting youths struggling with coming out, researchers say.
When E.J. Plata came out to his parents at age 14, he never could have predicted that they their journey to understand what their son was going through would lead them to found a youth group, the only of its kind in their area, for LGBTQ teens.
"It was hard to come out, I wanted to hide it from them," says Plata, now 20 years old. Plata's dad was a Marine and came from a family of men in the Marines and Plata feared disappointing him. But by the beginning of high school, it was clear to his parents that something was wrong. Plata had lost a lot of friends, was depressed, and had started abusing alcohol. When he drank to the point of alcohol poisoning at his homecoming dance, things came to a head.
"When I did finally tell them, it wasn't like all of a sudden they were accepting. They told me they loved me, but it was gradual." But soon Plata's parents, Elizabeth and Edward, started looking for more information and support and when they realized there was no support system area, they started a youth outreach that met in their Central Valley, Calif., home.
"They created this whole thing, and I was like whoa. I really felt like that helped me a lot, seeing my parents doing that. They set aside their religious beliefs and the conflict they were going through and really focused on the conflict I was going through. All it was how much they loved me," Plata said.
Though it may seem intuitive, research from San Francisco State shows that this kind of support at home can have a protective effect on the mental health of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths, bolstering their self-esteem and reducing the likelihood that they will suffer from depression, substance abuse, or become suicidal.
Compared with teens who report high levels of family support, those who report low levels of family rejection are over three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and to attempt suicide. Those who report high levels of family rejection are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide.
"We need to help parents learn to not just help their child survive, but thrive," says Caitlin Ryan, lead author on the study and director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
For many parents, having a child come out as gay can be difficult to process. When homosexuality goes against parents' religious or political views, it can be even harder for them to accept their child. In Ryan's study, which will be published Monday in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, high religious involvement in families was strongly associated with low acceptance of LGBT children.
"Somehow, parents may feel that [their child being gay] reflects badly on them, and yet they don't realize that this shutting out and shaming, pushes their children away and can make them more anxious, depressed, more suicidal," says Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine.