MONDAY, June 20, 2011 (Health.com) — The level of support that people perceive in their surroundings when they come out as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) is closely related to their mental health and overall well-being, and this may mean that coming out to some people (but not others) is less psychologically damaging than has been believed, a new study suggests.
People who reveal their sexual orientation to friends, family, or coworkers whom they consider tolerant and supportive tend to be less depressed, angry, and insecure in those social contexts than their peers who come out in less accepting or outright hostile environments, according to the study, which was published in the June 20 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“It makes sense theoretically,” says Stephen Russell, PhD, a professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, who was not involved in the study but has researched health risks among gay and lesbian adolescents. “People come out in places where they feel supported and they do better in terms of more self-esteem and less depression. That’s encouraging.”
The study findings aren’t entirely surprising, but they do add a new wrinkle to the research on the health implications of coming out.
Previous studies have found that concealing one’s sexual orientation can have consequences for both mental and physical health. (For instance, HIV has been shown to progress faster in closeted versus out individuals.) At the same time, the process of coming out can be fraught with conflict, fear, and distress.
“Coming out is a period of vulnerability for LGBT people—particularly youth,” Russell says. “Some respectable studies are showing, for example, that the risk for self-harm and suicide appears to be highest in the window around the period of coming out to key family members.”
By focusing on the level of support LGB individuals feel, the study helps explain how coming out might be both good and bad for mental health, depending on the context. The findings suggest that the same individual who feels more self-assured and less depressed and angry being out in a supportive environment may experience distress in a less supportive environment.
In fact, the study found that people who were selectively out—who were more out with friends and family than with coworkers, say—were no more or less depressed, angry, or content than people who concealed their sexual orientation less.
“We looked at whether people who were more out in some settings and less in others had worse overall well-being. They did not,” says Richard Ryan, Ph.D., a coauthor of the study and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York. “The evidence did not suggest that being selectively out was necessarily detrimental.”
Next page: Survey sample may not be representative