Those who identify as LGBTQ+ face daily struggles: societal stigma, rejection from friends or family members, and more challenges that heterosexual people typically do not face. They could be made fun of at school, called names, asked to move out of their parents’ home, ignored by friends or loved ones, ridiculed by strangers, or made to feel like an outsider due to government restrictions.
At a glance, these incidents appear to be temporary struggles that fade over time. For many people in the LGBTQ+ community, though, these incidents are psychologically scarring. And those scars can continue to grow as the individual faces continued rejection, stigma and other challenges.
The Facts About Traumatic Experiences in the LGBTQ+ Community
Experiencing a traumatic event can be emotionally debilitating. If this event is abuse from someone else (e.g., such as bullying at school, rejection from a friend or family member, or being taken advantage of sexually) the psychological toll on the victim can be even greater.
“Sometimes, experiencing severe social inequality is enough to develop trauma early on in life, just as being on the receiving end of military attacks as a civilian can permanently affect someone,” author Danielle Corcione wrote for Teen Vogue. “However, you don’t have to go to a war zone to endure trauma. Just try being queer and/or transgender as a teenager in the United States.”
The Recovery Village surveyed 400 people, 354 of which identified themselves as LGBTQ+, on the prevalence of substance use and mental health disorders in the LGBTQ+ community. One revelation from the survey was that most respondents who identify as LGBTQ+ experienced some form of traumatic abuse during their life.
Close to 75 percent of the LGBTQ+ respondents said they experienced at least one of the following forms of rejection (they were allowed to pick multiple answers if they experienced more than one):
- Emotional abuse by someone who wasn’t a family member (47.18 percent of respondents)
- School victimization/bullying (45.76 percent)
- Physical abuse by someone who wasn’t a family member (26.27 percent)
- Sexual abuse by someone who wasn’t a family member (22.03 percent)
- A hate crime (14.69 percent)
Rejection and abuse, especially when compounded, can have an impact on mental health and even contribute to PTSD.
The Road to Mental Illness
According to The Recovery Village’s survey, close to 18 percent of the LGBTQ+ respondents said that they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental illness that affects around 14 percent of Americans. PTSD can result from a single traumatic experience, or a collection of troublesome events, many of which people in the LGBTQ+ community experience in childhood and beyond.
People who have PTSD often struggle with other mental health disorders, such as depression. Of the LGBTQ+ respondents who said they have PTSD, around 82 percent also said they suffer from depression and exactly two-thirds said they have an anxiety disorder.
“PTSD and depression may be connected in a number of ways,” Dr. Matthew Tull wrote for the website VeryWellMind. “First, people with depression are more likely to have traumatic experiences than people without depression, which, in turn, may increase the likelihood that PTSD develops.
“A second possibility is that the symptoms of PTSD can be so distressing and debilitating that they actually cause depression to develop.”
However, not every traumatic experience in the form of abuse or rejection turns into a mental health disorder. The age of the victim is a significant factor.
How Childhood Trauma Permanently Affects the LGBTQ+ Community
Sexuality can be a confusing topic for a child or teenager. For young members of the LGBTQ+ community, that confusion is often heightened. Many kids and teenagers are repeatedly told by family members, friends and teachers that sexuality involves attraction between a man and a woman. If during puberty a boy is not attracted to girls, or vice versa, the child might struggle to understand why they are different from other kids.
Additionally, someone’s peers might make them feel inferior or like an outsider. According to the organization Violence Prevention Works, nearly 80 percent of gay teens are teased or bullied, generally far more than heterosexual teens.
The results from The Recovery Village’s survey also show that LGBTQ+ community members showed high percentages of family abuse during childhood: (respondents were allowed to pick multiple answers if they experienced more than one type of abuse):
- Emotional abuse by a family member (38.7 percent)
- Emotional neglect by a family member (25.42 percent)
- Physical abuse by a family member (25.14 percent)
- Sexual abuse by a family member (15.82 percent)
- Physical neglect by a family member (10.73 percent)
According to researchers from Harvard University, “Exposure to multiple traumatic events at a young age may be contributing to the increased rates of PTSD among sexual minorities.”
These experiences could lead to an LGBTQ+ child or teenager feigning heterosexuality in an attempt to fit in with societal norms and avoid being verbally abused. When a teenager accepts their sexuality and opens up to their friends or family about it, they are still at risk of emotional abuse or neglect.
“The feeling of differentness as it relates to being gay or lesbian is too complex for any child to process and make sense of, especially when coupled with external attacks in the form of homophobic, derogatory name calling,” Dr. Payam Ghassemlou wrote for the website PsychCentral. “Unlike a black child whose parents are typically also black, or a Jewish child with Jewish parents and relatives, the LGBT youth typically does not have gay or lesbian parents or anyone who could mirror his or her experience. In fact, many families tend to blame the mistreated LGBT youngster for not being like everyone else, making the child feel like he or she deserves this mistreatment.”
The combination of being abused by peers, not receiving proper support from family and not being able to lean on others who identify as LGBTQ+ can cause a child to feel isolated, humiliated and lacking in self-esteem. They might be inclined to carry a secret about their identity for years, even decades, because the fear of judgment seems to be scarier than closing themselves off from loved ones. That’s one of the better results, too.
“The youngster suffers in silence and might use dissociation to cope,” Dr. Ghassemlou continues in her article. “In a worst-case scenario, he or she could commit suicide.”
If you or someone you know identifies as LGBTQ+ and has experienced abuse at school or in the community, they might be struggling with PTSD and depression. Members of the LGBTQ+ community are ridiculed and made to feel like outcasts every day. Reaching out and providing love and support could be what that person needs to feel more accepted by society.
PTSD isn’t the only illness that can form due to someone being abused because of their sexual identity. There is a link between PTSD and another struggle: addiction. Close to half of individuals seeking treatment for the use of drugs or alcohol also show symptoms of PTSD.
At rehab facilities like The Recovery Village, patients who identify as LGBTQ+ will receive an assessment to uncover any co-occurring mental health disorders. For example, if someone has both PTSD and a substance use disorder, the staff will create a separate plan to treat each illness. Doing so allows the patient to focus on each disorder in a supportive environment and discuss with trained therapists any events from their past that have become traumatic memories. Opening up about these incidents, whether it’s emotional or physical abuse by either a family member or peer, and their lasting effects could be the catalyst toward finding closure and self-acceptance.