UBC studies examine eating disorder rates and suicide prevention for queer youth

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      As Vancouver gears up for celebrating LGBT progress this weekend, two UBC studies released this month take a closer look at how LGBT youth are faring in high schools—and what still needs to be addressed.

      Although social conditions may have improved in many areas for LGBT people, one UBC study has exposed a stark disparity in eating-disorder rates between sexual minority youth and their heterosexual peers while another UBC report reveals that greater LGBT inclusion can not only benefit LGBT and straight youth but also help save money and even save lives.

      While eating disorder rates are in decline for straight youth, that's doesn't appear to be necessarily the case for LGBT adolescents.

      A UBC study, published this month in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, has found that sexual minority teenagers have higher rates of eating disorders than their heterosexual peers.

      The study analyzed data from youth aged 12 to 18 years old who were attending public high schools in Massachusetts between 1999 and 2013. They were asked if they engaged in various forms of weight-control behaviour, such as using diet pills, fasting for 24 hours or more, or vomiting or taking laxatives to lose weight or prevent weight gain.

      While for most youth, the rates are decreasing, the study found that rates for lesbian and bisexual girls are heading in the opposite direction.

      Lesbian girls were found to be almost twice as likely to report fasting in 2013 than in 1999, rising from 22 to 36 percent, as well as purging, which increased from 11 to about 23 percent. Levels for bisexual girls remained approximately the same, at around 30 percent for fasting and about 12 percent for purging.

      In comparison, the rates for heterosexual girls were lower, with 18 percent reporting fasting in 1999 and decreasing to 11 percent in 2013, and a decrease from 8 to 5 percent for purging.

      Meanwhile, gay males levels remained steady for fasting at about 17 percent but had a significant decrease for purging, from 35 percent in 1999 to 10 percent in 2013.

      For use of diet pills, the rates of all groups remained the same or decreased, with the exception of lesbians—an increase from 11 to 21 percent.

      The authors of the study note that the results indicate improvements for sexual minority males but not females. Accordingly, further study is required to examine what gender-specific factors might be affecting LGBT youth differently.

      The study notes that one possible explanation for disordered eating among sexual-orientation minorities is that some youth may use these behaviours as coping mechanisms for dealing with social stress, such as lack of acceptance, harassment, rejection, or bullying and violence, which can lead to depression and other psychological issues.

      “The factors that lead to disordered eating behaviours are complex,” UBC nursing professor Elizabeth Saewyc, the study's senior author, stated in a news release. “This study suggests that we need to figure out to how to better support sexual minority youth, especially lesbian and bisexual girls, in developing positive body image and healthy eating choices.”

      Gay-Straight Alliance participants in the 2012 Halifax Pride Parade.

      Meanwhile, a UBC report, released this month and conducted in partnership with the youth non-profit McCreary Centre Society, reviewed research literature to examine evidence of how school-based interventions improve health outcomes for LGBT youth.

      The results indicate that pro-active measures can not only help to improve mental health and save lives among both heterosexual and sexual minority youth, but they can also help to save money.

      The studies looked at schools with the presence of GSAs; anti-bullying or harassment policies that have specific references to sexual orientation; and inclusive curriculum that includes LGBT people, history, issues, and information.

      The results indicate that GSAs correlate with greater mental health, lower substance abuse, lower homophobia, and less bullying among both heterosexual and sexual minority youth.

      "There is a clear need for health promotion interventions for LGBTQ youth, strategies that can reduce some of the critical health gaps between them and their peers," the report states.

      The researchers also note that the evidence suggest that schools with GSAs could result in up to 7 less suicide attempts by students, saving up to $71,540 per school per year, 41 less students reporting binge drinking, and 16 less students with substance abuse problems.

      “Research already tells us that school interventions can be powerful tools in reducing the health gap between LGBTQ youth and their straight peers, so we wanted to translate the science into a detailed picture of what these programs could contribute for schools, without straining already tight budgets,” McCreary Centre Society executive director Annie Smith stated in a news release.