When It Doesn’t Get Better: LGBT Youths Face Long-Term Effects of Bullying

Harassed LGBT teens show signs of depression and PTSD, according to a new study.
A Queer Rising’s ‘Take Back the Night’ gay rights march in New York City. (Photo: Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
Feb 13, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Alex Reed is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at the University of Southern California.

Support for LGBT teenagers has come a long way since Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project in 2010. But not even encouraging videos of celebrities can put an end to bullying or offset the lasting effects of emotional and physical abuse.

Indeed, one-third of LGBT teens still deal with varying degrees of discrimination, harassment, or assault, according to a study by researchers at Northwestern University, published in January in The American Journal of Public Health. The study distinguishes itself from other research on LGBT youths by including not just how often individuals were being bullied but how the bullying changed over time.

RELATED: One LGBT School’s Effort to Stop Bullying Starts Young

“We tend to think that society is evolving, but we can’t just accept this narrative that ‘it gets better’ and think it gets better for everyone,” lead researcher Brian Mustanski said in a statement.

Between 2007 and 2011, Mustanski and his team observed 248 Chicago teens who identified as LGBT or reported being attracted to people of the same gender. At the beginning of the study, they made note of the teens’ mental health and the degree to which they were being bullied. They then followed up with the youths, conducting seven additional interviews over the next four years.

For roughly 10 percent of participants, bullying started off at a manageable level and increased significantly. Another 5 percent felt excessively victimized for the duration of the study. Youths in these two groups were found to be at the highest risk for mental health problems down the road.

The individuals who were bullied with increasing severity and frequency over time fared the worst. They were found to be about five times more likely to become depressed and nine times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than those who were bullied less often and less severely over time.

RELATED: This Teacher Read a Gay Fairy Tale to Third Graders—Then Resigned Under Pressure

“You can’t equate someone giving you a dirty look with someone physically assaulting you,” 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.”

Overall, the researchers found that the majority of bullied LGBT youths are mentally stable and “resilient.” But given that depression is a major predictor of suicide attempts, Mustanski and his team hope their study and future research will spur schools and policy makers to do more to protect LGBT youths, as well as help them cope.

“With bullying, I think people often assume ‘that’s just kids teasing kids,’ and that’s not true,” Mustanski said. “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.”