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.
Self-blame can also be "a villain" in this process, says Michael LaSala, professor of Social Work at Rutgers University and author of "Coming Out, Coming Home". "Parents who blamed themselves are most likely to experience anxiety and depression, but parents don't make a kid gay."
Having a confidant or a network of support, such as through an organization like PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is critical for helping parents accept and embrace their child's sexuality, he says.
In response to several high-profile cases of bullying, many schools are doing a better job of educating students on these issues, Kaslow says, but there isn't often a venue for parents to have the kind of support and education they need to learn how to be there for their LGBT child.
Providing the tools and the community that parents need is part of the goal of Ryan's Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
"Sometimes parents don't realize that they are tolerating their child's sexuality, but not really accepting it," Ryan says.
"That's the exciting part. We've worked with ethnically and religiously diverse families who never realized before that their reaction put their kids at risk, that their behavior matters, and that they could help their child by changing it," she says.
Educating parents is just one part of the equation, however, notes LaSala.
In his own research interviewing the 65 LGBT youths and their parents, he found that for some, even parental support could not undo the damage done by the bullying these kids received from their peers.
"Certainly a supportive family has a protective effect, but some kids [in my study] still had mental health problems...even a great family will not always be enough to neutralize years of abuse at the hands of their peers."