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Consistent response from parents is key to gay and lesbian mental health, small study finds

Individuals whose parents evolved to accept their sexuality reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than those whose parents consistently rejected them.
Image: Parents march in a show of unity during the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade on June 23, 1990.
Parents march in a show of unity during the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade on June 23, 1990.Nick Ut / AP file

A consistent level of parental support, even if it’s negative, leads to better mental health outcomes for lesbians and gay men, according to a small new study.

The report, released this week at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, found that individuals whose parents were initially unsupportive of their sexual orientation but became more accepting with time were most likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Researchers at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology surveyed 175 cisgender gay men and lesbians about the initial and current levels of parental support they received regarding their sexuality.

Based on their responses, the subjects were divided into three groups: Those whose parents’ reaction was consistently positive, those whose parents’ reaction was consistently negative and those whose parents’ reaction shifted from negative to positive. (A fourth group, individuals whose parents were initially positive but shifted to negative, was excluded because it was too small to analyze.) 

The groups were then given two assessments frequently used to determine mental health: the general anxiety disorder-7 questionnaire and a patient health questionnaire. The first questionnaire found those with consistently positive support and those with consistently negative support had “mild anxiety,” while those whose parents evolved from negative to positive had “moderate anxiety.” The latter questionnaire, which rates symptoms of depression, found those with static parental reactions exhibited “mild depression,” while those whose parents shifted their support had what is considered “moderate depression.”

Lead author Matthew Verdun, a doctoral candidate in applied clinical psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a licensed family therapist, said many factors could be at play, including that family rejection can lead gays and lesbians to find new, healthier support systems. 

“In coming out, we learn how to cultivate meaningful relationships and navigate across social context,” he said. “Who are safe people to come out to? How do I identify the people who are going to accept all of me, including my orientation?” 

Re-establishing the bond with a previously unaccepting parent could mean ending therapy or abandoning a chosen family, he said. And just because a parent is more accepting doesn’t mean the environment is a positive one.

“If a parent goes from being unsupportive to supportive, are they abandoning some of their relationships that may still be unhealthy?” Verdun said. “Are they part of a faith tradition that rejects their child or says they’re an abomination? If the parent comes around but doesn’t shift out of that belief system, that’s going to affect their child.” 

Previous research has generally linked negative responses from family to a higher probability of LGBTQ mental health issues: According to a 2010 study by the Family Acceptance Project, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young adults who reported low levels of family acceptance in adolescence were over three times more likely to have suicidal thoughts and to report suicide attempts, compared to those with high levels of family acceptance.

But those studies, Verdun noted, look at the dynamic at one point in time, usually when the individual has just come out or is still living at home. “I wanted to know what happens over time,” he said.

The findings can be useful for mental health providers, he said, but they shouldn’t be interpreted as meaning that rejecting your gay or lesbian child is a healthy response.

“If I was talking to parents, I’d say supporting your child is key,” Verdun said.

Psychiatrist Jack Drescher, author of “Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man” and a former editor of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health, called the findings “rather surprising.”

“It’s not the result we expect, based on clinical evidence,” Drescher, who was not involved in the study, said. “But when we don’t know the answer, the answer is always to do more study. I’d love to see qualitative research — get narratives of the people involved and see what themes emerge among those who had the experience of having negative and later positive responses.”

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