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Do sexual minority teenagers have greater health risks?

People who identify as gay or bisexual have long been known to be more likely than others to be at risk from behaviour which can affect their health, such as drug-taking, drinking and not doing enough exercise. But how does this affect today’s teenagers? In an era of greater social liberalism might these differences be disappearing? Professor Yvonne Kelly and Dr Cara Booker discuss new research which sheds light on the issue.

Numerous studies have shown people from sexual minorities tend to suffer disproportionately from a range of health issues, yet until now there has been a paucity of up-to-date, comprehensive evidence about the level of risk faced by this group in the UK. A recent report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission called for more research.

Two studies have been able to shed new light on the issue. Evidence from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, examines its impact on adults and suggests problems still persist despite recent social change. And research based on the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which has followed almost 12,000 children since their birth between 2000 and 2002, has presented an ideal opportunity to look at the health outcomes of young people while they are still growing up. 

Sexual minority adolescents

MCS is a birth cohort study which has followed up children born in the UK just after the Millennium, and it has followed up its participants at nine months, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years. So using this last sweep, it was possible to look at whether sexual minority adolescents experienced more adverse outcomes than their heterosexual peers. 

Between January 2015, and April 2016, 9885 adolescents in the MCS provided a response about their sexual attraction. Six per cent identified themselves as experiencing same-sex or bisexual attraction. Of these, the large majority were female – particularly among those who said they were bisexual.

Among the 629 respondents in this group, 50 (29 female and 21 male) reported same-sex attraction only and 576 (451 female and 125 male) reported bisexual attraction – this was not the case in the samples taken for Understanding Society, where the gender split was more even.

This may be because there is a lot of fluidity in sexual orientation at younger ages – so girls who say they are bisexual at this age may not say so in the future. But the rates of young people who identify as non-heterosexual have increased over time and so we may expect more young people to be bisexual or non-heterosexual in the MCS sample, who are younger than those in the Understanding Society study.

In order to assess mental health, MCS respondents were asked if they had self-harmed in the past year; how they rated their self-esteem and their subjective wellbeing, and about their general life satisfaction. They were asked if they experienced depressive symptoms, and if they felt they were bullied or victimised. They were also asked if they had been involved in anti-social behaviour such as stealing or violence, how close they felt to their parents, whether they smoked, drank or took illegal drugs, and whether they had had unprotected sex. Their levels of physical activity and diet were also assessed.

Range of problems

The findings suggested sexual minority adolescents were more likely to suffer from a range of problems including high depressive symptoms, self-harm, lower life satisfaction, lower self-esteem and all forms of bullying and victimisation. Young people from sexual minorities also had higher odds of being less physically active, of perceiving themselves as overweight and of having dieted to lose weight. And they were more likely to suffer from more than one of these issues than their heterosexual peers were. 

However, they were no more likely to engage in violence using a weapon, regular smoking, regular cannabis use, regular drinking, or other drug use. Sexual minority adolescents did not have increased odds of engaging in sexual activity or of engaging in risky sexual behaviour, and there was no difference between sexual minority adolescents and heterosexual adolescents regarding whether they had close friendships.

It has been suggested in the past that disparities may occur because sexual minorities experience stress factors such as bullying as well as facing the stress of navigating their identity. Their experience of prejudice and possible absence of support from family and others may be linked to mental distress, and this may lead to potentially risky behaviours such as substance misuse. However, activities such as drinking, smoking, drugs and sex are also part of normal adolescent development – so we would not want to suggest they’re always a major problem.

The teenage years are a time for experimenting and pushing boundaries, something discussed in an earlier Child of our Time blog on sexual behaviour.

Sexual minorities in adulthood

All this has implications for lifelong health and social outcomes. Recent research led by Dr Cara Booker used Understanding Society data from over 40,000 individuals aged 16 and over to explore the health inequalities of sexual minority UK adults. 

Unlike the MCS study, this research included respondents who identified as ‘other’ and those who preferred not to say. And a distinction was drawn between those who identified as gay and those who identified as bisexual. Participants were asked about their physical and mental functioning, minor psychological distress, self-rated health, substance use and disability. 

Overall, heterosexual respondents had the best health while bisexual respondents had the worst. Gay and lesbian respondents reported poorer health than heterosexuals, specifically with regard to mental functioning, distress and illness. 

There were no differences in either mental or physical health between lesbian and gay respondents once socio-demographic characteristics were controlled for, and there were also some indicators on which bisexuals did not differ from other groups.

Those who were ‘other’ or preferred not to say were similar to each other and generally experienced fewer health inequalities than gay and lesbian respondents, but still had poorer health than heterosexuals. This suggests that health promotion interventions are needed for these individuals, who might not participate in interventions targeted toward known sexual minority groups. 

Range of disparities

In conclusion, these two pieces of research suggest that a range of disparities based on sexual attraction are visible as early as 14 years of age, and are likely to persist through adult life.

These results highlight the need for further prevention efforts and intervention at the school, community, and policy level to ensure that sexual minority adolescents do not face lifelong negative social, economic, and health outcomes.

Health and educational practitioners should be aware of the increased risk for adverse outcomes in sexual minority adolescents.

Schools provide an ideal infrastructure to implement effective public health change and social policies. In light of this, a new UK curriculum that teaches students about gender and relationship diversity has been developed, but the guidance around its implementation currently lacks clarity. Therefore, at the policy level, clearer guidelines for schools are needed. 

Better support for families could help, too, to alleviate tensions between parents and sexual minority adolescents. This needs further investigation. 

In conclusion, despite high-profile UK policies such as the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2013 and the introduction of sexual orientation as a protected characteristic during the lifetime of the young people in this study, the evidence presented here indicates that large inequalities in social and health outcomes still exist for sexual minority adolescents growing up in the 21st century.

Mental health, social adversity, and health-related outcomes in sexual minority adolescents: a contemporary national cohort study, by Rebekah Amos, Eric Julian Manalastas, Ross White, Henny Bos and Praveetha Patalay, was published in Lancet Child Adolescent Health 2020; 4: 36–45 https://doi.org/10.1016/ S2352-4642(19)30339-6

Sexual orientation health inequality: Evidence from Understanding Society, the United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study, by Cara L Booker, Gerulf Rieger and Jennifer B Unger, was published in Preventive Medicine 101, 2017, 126-132.

Author affiliations: 

Professor Yvonne Kelly, ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, University College, London

Dr Cara L Booker, Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex.

Time to ACE the way we measure the bad things that happen to children

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have been a hot topic for policy work in child health and development in recent months. The Select Committee for Science and Technology announced an inquiry into evidence-based early-years interventions, with a particular focus on ACEs. Also a new All Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Childhood Adversities was set up. Essential to the success of these policy initiatives is a fit for purpose method of measuring the negative things that happen to people when they are young, something Rebecca Lacey from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at University College London argues is often overlooked. As part of a new research project, she is hoping to change that.

When Norman Lamb MP launched the early-years intervention inquiry in late 2017, he expressed concern that research in this area was “not being effectively used” in the creation of health policy and other support arrangements. Part of the problem with effective evidence in this area is that the system used to ‘score’ the number of bad things that have happened to a child and assess their risk of poor outcomes later in life is often poorly thought through and rarely questioned.

In 1998 a landmark piece of research by Vincent Felitti and colleagues showed that adults who reported being abused as children, witnessing violence against their mother, living with a substance misuser, or someone who had been in prison or had a mental illness had an increased risk of numerous health problems, such as depression and drug misuse, when they grew up.

It also showed that the number of adversities that someone reported having experienced as a child was really important; the more adversities reported, the higher the risk of health problems in adulthood. This number of adversities is often known as an ‘ACE score’ and Felitti’s paper was the first to use this approach for childhood adversities. It’s an approach that has since been employed in hundreds of academic studies.

Advantages and disadvantages

ACE scores have several advantages. They’re easy to calculate by simply adding up the number of adversities each person has experienced. In a clinical setting, a simple screening tool can be used to identify people at particularly high risk of health problems. These are generally people who have experienced four or more adversities, regardless of which ones.

This approach also acknowledges that people reporting one adversity are much more likely to have experienced at least one other. In Felitti’s study more than half of the people reporting that they’d been psychologically abused as a child had also been physically abused. Similarly, 3 out of every 5 people who had a family member in prison also reported that someone in the household had substance misuse problems. This clustering of adversities is crucially important to recognise both in research and in policymaking.

However, there are many reasons why ACE scores aren’t helpful for policy use. In fact they were never ‘designed’ with policy use in mind. Because they lump together adversities which are often very different (for example, experiencing abuse is likely to be a different experience to having a parent in prison), it’s difficult to tell which adversities have the potential to have the most harmful effects on health. We also don’t always know a lot about how those adversities affect health. Knowing this information would help us to better inform where to target policies. The problem is further confused by different studies including different adversities in their ACE score. So when looking at the findings of different studies you can be comparing apples and pears.

Policy relevance

The heightened interest in ACEs combined with the recognition that early life is important for how a person’s life will pan out is really good news. But we do need to think more carefully about how we measure adversities in research and in particular how we can make our research more policy relevant.

For instance, if there’s a limited budget, which adversities would you try to tackle first? Are there particular childhood adversities which increase the risk of a child experiencing many other adversities? How do different types of adversities affect health? Is it appropriate to lump together very different types of adversities into an ACE score or is there a more appropriate way of treating the clustering of adversities in a less crude way? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed quickly.

 Whilst the research is underway, there are a few things that researchers and policymakers can think about. As a starting point researchers and policy makers and practitioners interested in this area need to think more critically about how adversities are measured, with an aim of being more meaningful and policy relevant. What do we and don’t we know by using ACE scores? What other approaches to adversity measurement could we explore?

Longitudinal studies are key

Longitudinal studies, such as the British Birth Cohorts, which collect information on children and their family circumstances over their lives, are key to improving the evidence base on ACEs and health. Many of the existing studies on ACEs and health have relied on people recalling information on what they experienced as a child. This is prone to error and bias, and can be affected by what people are experiencing at the time they are asked, such as depression or stress at work.

These studies can also help us better understand whether and how timing matters. Not only can we ask which adversities appear to be particularly harmful for health, but also, when exposure to specific adversities are particularly harmful. By doing this/taking this kind of approach, we can also identify the most fruitful times to intervene to help people flourish across their lives.

Finally, the communication of risk is really important. There are many advocates of ACEs who directly translate findings from observational, population-level research into their work with individuals. For instance, if a research study shows that children who experience 4 or more adversities are on average 6 times more likely to be depressed in adulthood, this doesn’t mean that every individual who experienced 4 adversities will be 6 times more likely to have depression in adulthood. This approach of directly translating population risk is not appropriate and if done means that research often gets miscommunicated in a way that’s too deterministic. The health (or other) consequences of ACEs are not inevitable.

The recent increase in policy interest gives us an opportunity to achieve a step-change in the way we look at adverse childhood experiences.  If we seize this opportunity, the research community can play a key role in supporting the desire of policy makers and politicians to be effective in achieving their aim of helping at-risk children, adults affected by earlier bad experiences, the NHS, all those working in this area and UK taxpayers.

Young drinkers: using evidence to prevent alcohol abuse

Research by Child of our Time Editor Yvonne Kelly on 11 year-old drinking has caught the eye of Mentor, a charity working to build resilience among young people to prevent alcohol and drug misuse. The charity’s CEO, Michael O’Toole is now looking to collaborate with Yvonne in future research that will take a look a first look at data from the Millennium Cohort Study in the Autumn. In this episode of the Child of our Time podcast, Michael explains what Mentor is doing, why research based evidence is so important to the charity and how he hopes it will help prevent alcohol abuse among young children in the future.

Photo credit: Joseph Choi