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Gay, Bisexual Youth Found to Engage in Self-Harming Behaviors

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

A CDC study released today reports that gay and bisexual high school students are more likely to engage in risky behavior. The risky behaviors cover a broad list and are not limited to sexual behavior, an established finding in a prior study. They included cigarette smoking, riding a bike without a helmet and alcohol and substance abuse. Here is an interesting sampling of the kinds of risk-taking and self-harm behaviors, and their incidence by percentage points, that the CDC asked about:

· About 8 percent to 19 percent of heterosexual students said they currently smoke cigarettes; 20 percent to 48 percent of gay and lesbian students smoked.

· About 4 to 10 percent of heterosexual students said they attempted suicide in the previous year. For gay and lesbian students: 15 percent to 34 percent. For bisexual students: 21 percent to 32 percent.

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· About 3 percent to 6 percent of heterosexual students said they threw up or used laxatives to lose weight or stay thin. For gay and lesbian students: 13 percent to 20 percent. For bisexual students: 12 percent to 17.5 percent.

The results come from five states covering four city school districts. The states were Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont. The cities were Boston, Chicago, New York City and San Francisco. Clearly, vast demographic groups from the South, Midwest, West and Southwest were omitted. The surveys were anonymous self-reports and did not ask for the reasons for risky behaviors.

Aside from these factors, it is reasonable to assume at least some risky behavior increases among gay and bisexual youth. Often young people not fitting any socially-established and peer-approved social category feel a more profound sense of alienation and confusion. Many of the feelings and desires they experience are forbidden or shunned. These inner conflicts easily become negative self-identifiers. The risky behaviors observed and reported are simply externalizations (or “acting out”) of an interior state of mind.

Findings such as these underscore the importance of establishing and maintaining mental health services in schools. Such services can help to intervene in and interrupt a pattern of self-destructive behaviors which can become lifelong habits. It is easier to intervene early, when those habits are still in formation, rather than later, when they have become entrenched as a lifestyle, with all of their concomitant costs to the community at large.