Youth in westernized societies tend to reveal unorthodox sexual inclinations increasingly early. These days lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) persons "come out" when they cross just 16 years of age.
Barely two decades ago they won't dare do so till perhaps they reached 25. Clearly that is a dramatic shift, indicating the changing social mores.
In such circumstances family support and acceptance is essential for LGB youth, stresses Dr. Guy Shilo of Bob Shapell School of Social Work, Tel Aviv University.
. "Family support is a crucial variable in the mental health of young LGBs, higher than peer support," writes Dr. Shilo in his study published in Family Relations.
"It is difficult for a LGB teen to separate themselves from unsupportive families because they are still dependent on that family for their welfare."
The repeal of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy and the legalization of gay marriage in New York state represent great strides, but a lot more needs to be done.
Dr. Shilo and Prof. Riki Savaya conducted a study of 461 self-identified LGB youth, aged 16-23, to examine how stress related to being part of a minority group was impacting their mental health. To determine stress levels, the researchers investigated how participants felt about their family, friends and peer support, as well as their connection to the LGB community as an emotional support. Participants were evaluated for mental distress and feelings of well-being — the polar negative and positive of mental health.
While peer support certainly had an impact on the mental health of participants, researchers discovered that family support was more central to their sense of well-being. A lack of family support was found to significantly heighten mental distress among the study participants, which can lead to depression. In addition, researchers found that family acceptance had the strongest positive impact on self-acceptance of sexual orientation.
Adult LGBs who lack the support of their families, explains Dr. Shilo, often react by leaving their families behind. They build separate lives which can include "families of choice," where peer groups, mainly from the LGB community, form an alternative family structure give each other the same emotional support and sense of belonging that a family is meant to provide. But this is not always a viable option at a younger age.
Today, more adolescents are open about their sexual orientation — and the younger they are, the more important family connections tend to be. The average 16-year-old is still in school and depends on family for financial support, food and shelter. "They can't just get up and go," Dr. Shilo says.
The tendency of LGBs to come out earlier in life derives from social and cultural progress, Dr. Shilo explains. Most adult GLB's knew they were gay, lesbian or bisexual at the age of nine or ten. The increasing respect and recognition of the rights of sexual minorities have provided the encouragement to "come out" at an earlier age.
In such an atmosphere, it is important to create a supportive and accepting social environment with additional social resources, says Dr. Shilo, who works with Beit Dror, a shelter for runaway LGB youth in central Tel.