22 October 2008
If “gay” is a synonym for “happy” then why do statistics say gay men are more likely to suffer from depression than straight men?
While homophobes argue that homosexuality is itself a mental illness that causes depression, researchers blame it on what they call internalized homonegativity. If you struggle with accepting your sexuality or feel shame or regret about being queer even subconsciously you are experiencing what these scientists call homonegativity.
The two theories went head-to-head in a recent study of 422 gay and bisexual men from the midwestern United States. The results, published in the September issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, put another nail in the coffin of the homophobic theory.
“It’s a pretty significant study,” says David Brennan, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto who specializes in studying gay and bisexual men’s mental health. “It’s more information about how we need to make structural change to reduce the chance that anyone should have to experience negative feelings about being gay.”
Brennan cautions against misreading the results, noting that they don’t mean that homonegativity causes depression but rather that homonegativity is related to depression and that being gay is not.
“What’s really interesting about this paper is for about 150 years scientists have been debating whether homosexuality causes mental illness and sexual illness or whether something else, such as social oppression, causes it,” says Simon Rosser, lead investigator for the study and a researcher in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.
“What our evidence suggests is that the old advice to homosexual men to bite the bullet and avoid homosexuality is probably making things worse,” adds Rosser, referring to ex-gay organizations such as Exodus and teachings from religions like the Catholic Church.
Rather than putting the participants into boxes either homo-negative or not homonegative, queer or not queer the study compared rates of depression with how gay and how homonegative participants were. A modified Kinsey scale measured degree of homosexuality while another scale developed by Rosser and Michael Ross of the University of Texas’ Health Science Centre measured the degree of homo-negativity each participant experienced.
Although Rosser’s study does not actually prove a connection between societal homophobia and depression that’s where he’s headed with his research.
“What the theory suggests is that internalized homonegativity is not something someone is born with,” says Rosser. Instead the theory suggests that homonegativity occurs when we absorb the attitudes of a homophobic society. A follow-up study already underway will measure how homonegative queers are, versus how homophobic their city’s culture is. The study looks at queers in 16 different cities. Toronto will be the only Canadian city included in the study.
The Rosser’s results come as no surprise to local psychotherapist Rupert Raj, who works with queer and trans folks at Sherbourne Health Centre.
“We see [the connection between homonegativity and depression] here with our clients,” says Raj, adding that Rosser’s results are valuable nonetheless. “If you’re talking to clinicians who are not so versed in this field it may change how they approach their work with the client.”
Raj says therapists who are aware of how homonegativity affects patients approach their clients differently, especially when it comes to clients who may not realize they’ve internalized negative attitudes about their sexuality.
“[Therapists] need to put that on the table and say, ‘I think this is impacting your depression, so let’s work on this,'” says Raj.
According to Rosser there have been plenty of studies on gay men and depression in the past in which the participants were all already receiving therapy.
“The big problem with this approach is that because all the men are in treatment it is impossible to sort out whether their depression is due to their homosexuality or something else. For example the treatment itself,” he says.
Rosser sidestepped this issue by using a community-based sample the participants in the study were queer men who attended a sexual health seminar. Only 28 percent reported being in therapy in the three months prior to being surveyed.