InCHIP: The potential future of LGBTQIA+ mental health research

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The University of Connecticut’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention and Policy (InCHIP) Lecture Series allows spaces for intellectuals who specialize in social and behavioral health to offer their input on current findings and spark the interests of fellow researchers. In honor of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, InCHIP invited Dr. Jessica Fish, an assistant professor of family science at the University of Maryland and deputy director for research and evaluation at UMD’s Prevention Research Center, to speak at Thursday’s session titled Future Direction in Understanding and Addressing Mental Health Among LGBTQ Youth. 

Fish began by explaining the urgency behind LGBTQIA+ youth mental health challenges that still exist today. Although LGBTQIA+ visibility and rights have since seen positive changes including improved societal attitudes, repealings of harmful laws/policies and increased representation in mainstream media, these changes have little effect on the fact that LGBTQIA+ youth have an increased susceptibility to poor mental health. On the contrary, changes in societal norms have actually brought more complexity to LGBTQIA+ youth development. 

“Specifically, as more LGBTQ youth come out in early adolescence, they start to navigate cognitive, interpersonal, institutional, social and cultural contexts in which LGBTQ identities and issues are particularly complex,” Fish said. “In other words, these broader socio-historical processes of growing acceptance — and with some exception, improved policies — now collide with normative developmental processes in ways that make contemporary LGBTQ youth vulnerable to poor mental health just like generations of LGBTQ people before them.” 

Fish pointed out how these findings instigate potential directions for future LGBTQIA+ mental health research and introduced six of her own ideas for how these directions could be implemented. 

“These include: framing LGBTQ health in a life course perspective, expanding notions of mental health, attending to the complexity of [LGBTQIA+] youth context, acknowledging heterogeneity, leveraging community resources and fostering team science approaches for inquiry and application,” Fish said. 

Adolescence is a crucial time for development, and early experiences tend to play a large role in the later health of LGBTQIA+ people. As a way to address this life course perspective, Fish recommended that longitudinal research be modified to focus on three aspects: The extent of how early experiences influence LGBTQIA+ mental health, the varying impacts of those experiences and how the timing of those experiences can affect mental health throughout one’s life course. Because the period of adolescence is so critical to LGBTQIA+ development, Fish suggested that concepts of inclusivity be introduced to children early on. 

“It would benefit researchers, practitioners, policymakers and educators to consider how to capture and integrate issues of LGBTQ inclusivity and diversity at young ages,” Fish said. “Age-appropriate interventions that incorporate sexual orientation and gender diversity could help to reduce bias in children and ultimately stave early exposure to stigma for LGBTQ youth, but we need a ton more work in this area.” 

Within the expanding notions of mental health, resilience is an ability that is rarely depicted in research, despite it being a shared trait among LGBTQIA+ youth who face day-to-day adversity. Although topics like bullying, victimization and stigma are important for researchers to address and combat, Fish advocated that positive methods of reducing harm — coping strategies and LGBTQIA+ empowerment — also deserve scientific attention. 

Fish’s third idea was related to the notion of the multicontextual and multifacted nature of LGBTQIA+ youth experiences. Due to a constant shift in environments — primarily between school and home — LGBTQIA+ youth can be forced to switch from inhabiting accepting spaces to rejecting spaces, where the on-and-off nature of this phenomenon actually brings further detriment to their mental health. Therefore, she advised that more nuanced perspectives regarding the functionality of multiple contexts are necessary in LGBTQIA+ research. 

“Research that is intentional in operationalizing and measuring experiences both across and within various contexts will help bring much-needed nuance to how LGBTQ youth experiences with schools, peers and families shape mental health and well-being and more importantly, strategies to intervene in these spaces and across these spaces,” Fish said. 

Additionally, Fish summarized the need for researchers to acknowledge heterogeneity among LGBTQIA+ youth (racial, ethnic, religious and disability status, among others) and how intersectional methods should be utilized in those situations. Her last two ideas covered the value of community contexts — how preliminary research shows that attending LGBTQ community centers correlates with higher mental health status and provides an overall safe space for LGBTQIA+ youth — and the value of collaborative research in training programs when it comes to tackling social issues. 

“In addition to strategies for developing, implementing and sustaining these collaborative endeavors as students move through the process, courses would benefit emerging scholars, regardless of discipline or focus, but particularly for those whose scholarship seeks to address really pressing public health problems like interactable disparities for sexual minority and gender minority populations,” Fish said. 

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