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A compelling new study adds to the mounting evidence that family acceptance or rejection of adolescent sexual orientation and gender identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender children has a major impact on their mental health as young adults.
The research shows a clear key link between family acceptance of LGBT adolescents and their well-being into adulthood. The study, directed by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and her team at the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, was just published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, a publication of the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses.
This new research shows for the first time that family acceptance not only has a protective effect against negative outcomes, including suicide attempts, depression and substance abuse, it also has significant positive effects, including enhanced self-esteem, social support and general health. In addition, those from accepting homes express a greater optimism that they can be happy as adults and have a greater desire to be parents themselves.
A related study by Ryan and her team published earlier this year in the journal Pediatrics reported on the powerful relationship between negative or rejecting parental and caregiver reactions to an adolescent's gay identity and very high rates of attempted suicide, substance abuse and risk for HIV infection.
Parental reactions such as excluding the child from family events and activities, preventing him or her from having a gay friend, or attempting to change the child's orientation significantly increase the risk for serious health problems as a young adult.
An especially important finding for Mormon parents, leaders and congregations in the current study is the relationship between attempted suicide in adulthood and low family acceptance during adolescence. LGBT young adults who report extremely low family acceptance during adolescence are more than three times as likely to have tried to take their own lives, compared with peers from highly accepting families.
These findings have great significance for communities within the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since LDS LGBT youth are among these unfortunate casualties. In fact, suicide is the leading cause of death for adolescent males in Utah, ages 15 to 19, who die at nearly double the national average.
One additional finding of this study that may have special significance for Latter-day Saints (LDS youth and families were included in this research) is that high religious commitment in families is strongly associated with low acceptance of LGBT children.
Thus, LDS parents may face a particular challenge to engender more accepting attitudes and behaviors toward their gay and lesbian children. To do so will maximize not only their children's chances of maintaining physical and mental health, but also of strengthening the family and achieving their aspirations for a fulfilling family future.
Dr. Ryan, who is developing a new family support model to decrease risk and promote well-being for LGBT youth, would agree. She studied religious practice and beliefs as part of her research and sees faith as a strength that can help families nurture their children. She summarizes:
"At a time when the media and families are becoming acutely aware of the risk that many LGBT youth experience, our findings offer a gateway to hope for LGBT youth and families that struggle with how to balance deeply held religious and personal values with love for their LGBT children."
Why is this important to LDS families? One Mormon mother tells of the struggle their family went through when their teen-age son announced his same-gender attraction. Like many parents, they went through understandable stages of denial, confusion and anger. Their son felt rejected and moved out of the home and didn't communicate with his parents for over a year.
During this time the parents read everything they could from both general and religious sources and concluded that their most important responsibility was to reach out to their son with love and understanding, including welcoming him and his gay friends into their home. The mother confesses that it wasn't easy and that it took a couple of difficult years for them to finally work things out.
Recently, they got a letter from their son expressing appreciation for their love and patience. His mother says, "The Church teaches us that no success can compensate for failure in the home, and when we realized that included our relationship with our gay son, we knew that, with God's help, we could do whatever was necessary to make our home a safe and loving one."
Robert A. Rees teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. William S. Bradshaw and his wife Marjorie are the leaders of Family Fellowship, a support group for LDS families dealing with same-sex attraction. They are co-authors of "A Guide for Latter-day Saint Families Dealing with Homosexual Attraction."