How sexual minority adolescents cope with stress- An interview with Dr. Jeremy T Goldbach

Sexual minority adolescents are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, self harm, substance abuse, suicide ideation and attempts due to minority stress. The study “Strategies employed by sexual minority adolescents to cope with minority stress” by Jeremy T Goldbach, and Jeremy Gibbs looks at how they cope with this stress.

1. ​Could you touch a bit on what the research is for our audience who maybe learning about it for the first time?

This study was looking at the experiences of sexual minority adolescents. these youth (SMA) include individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or some other identity that is not exclusively heterosexual. Often, these youth report health and mental health problems that are worse than their heterosexual peers – including much higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidality. In fact, studies that look at rates of suicide attempt suggest a 2-4x higher risk for attempt requiring medical attention. generally, research has found that the reason for this has to do with discrimination, stigma, bullying and violence against these youth. Similar to what may influence negative outcomes in many social minority communities, these experiences cause added stress and put youth at risk for negative outcomes

2. What got you interested in doing this study?

Most of the research out there has focused on risk factors – all of the terrible things that happen to young people – and our study is one of the few to try and focus on the positive things that might be happening for young people so that we can try to build resilience.

3.How do sexual minority adolescents deal with minority stress?

Coping is made up of two different types of things, coping strategies, which are the things we do (consciously or subconsciously) to deal with stress. And, coping resources, which are the things in our lives that help us cope (a trusted adult, close friends, access to a therapist, etc). We found that SMA youth use a lot of the same types of strategies that heterosexual youth use – avoiding stressful situations, cognitively restructuring so the narrative is “not so bad” – but we found unique coping resources including the importance of a trusted adult and presence of positive school structures such as having a Gay-Straight Alliance at their school. I think we under-estimate the importance of letting young people know we are an “Ally” – so things like equal rights stickers, “Ally” stickers, “Safe space” stickers, etc., can make a big difference for young people even if they never tell us.

4.Do you think engagement or disengagement strategy is a better way to deal with minority stress?

I think it really all depends on the type of stressor and an individual analysis of the consequences. some types of stressors, like a family member who is hurtful emotionally or physically, is not something that can easily be disengaged from.

5.Why do you think there are racial differences in how sexual minority adolescents deal with minority stress?

I think that this gets at issues of intersectionality, that is, we are more than the sum of our parts. We learn coping skills and identify coping resources in a lot of different ways as we get older. Many of the coping skills we learn from our parents, but that is not true for all social minorities. For instance, many children of color are raised by parents who share the same experience, and they can help to infuse coping skills into their children that include other members of their community. LGBT people often are not raised by parents who are LGBT, so they don’t necessarily get to learn those coping skills in the same way. I think that the experiences of youth who have multiple minority status (female, person of color, lesbian, etc) may rely on different resources given their unique experience.

6.From the study you have done, do you think any policies could be made to help sexual minority adolescents better cope with minority stress?

This study is bit small to make large policy statements but it was clear from the interviews that the presence of a supportive adult, which may or may not be a parent, was important. This is not exactly a policy, but when people put “safe space” stickers outside their offices, or sign their emails with their “gender pronouns”, it sends a silent message to a young person that “I am here, and I support you” even if you don’t say anything at all. Sometimes just knowing a person is safe can make all the difference.

7.Where are studies at the moment and where do you anticipate findings going in the next year or so?

This study later became a study to develop a measure of minority stress that was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). We are working on writing up the findings of these studies now, and hope to do more work following young people throughout the course of adolescence so we may better understand how minority stress (and coping) impact health across the life course.

We need to start taking small steps to help sexual minority adolescents feel more comfortable and accepted in today’s society, which will help make dealing with minority stress easier for them.

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