The number of Israeli lesbian, gay and bisexual teens who identify their sexual leanings and “come out” to their family and friends has grown dramatically in the past two decades, with the average age dropping from 25 in 1991 to 16 in 2010, according to Tel Aviv University researchers.
In a new study published in the journal Family Relations on the stress factors and the mental health of sexual minorities, Dr. Guy Shilo of TAU’s Bob Shapell School of Social Work reported that family support and acceptance is becoming increasingly essential for LGB youth. “Family support is a crucial variable in the mental health of young LGBs, higher than peer support,” wrote Shilo, noting that it is difficult for LGB teens to separate themselves from unsupportive families because they are still dependent on them for their welfare.
Shilo and his colleague Prof. Riki Savaya conducted a study of 461 self-identified LGB youth aged 16 to 23 to examine how stress related to being part of a minority group was impacting their mental health. To determine stress levels, the researchers questioned participants on how they felt about their family, friends and peer support, as well as their connection to the LGB community for 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, the 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, they found that family acceptance had the strongest positive impact on self-acceptance of sexual orientation.
Adult LGBs who lack the support of their families, explained Shilo, often react by leaving their families behind. They build separate lives that can include “families of choice,” where peer groups – mainly from the LGB community – form an alternative family structure and 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, wrote Shilo, who works with Beit Dror, a shelter for runaway LGB youth in central Tel Aviv supported by the municipality and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and the Israel Gay Youth Organization.
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.”
The tendency of LGBs to come out earlier in life derives from social and cultural progress, concluded Shilo. Most adult LGBs knew they were homosexual or bisexual at the age of nine or 10, he maintained. “The increasing respect and recognition of the rights of sexual minorities have provided the encouragement to ‘come out’ at an earlier age,” he wrote.