January 29, 2013
A new study by a team of researchers from the University of Montreal seems to scientifically support what many have long suspected: For lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals, coming out provides a tangible benefit in terms of both biological and mental health.
The findings, published today in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (the paper is not yet linked online), are the result of a study originally intended to see if, overall, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals had higher levels of cortisol—a hormone whose presence in the body reflects chronic stress—as well as a greater chance of self-reported negative psychiatric symptoms such as anxiety and depression. The researchers’ original hypothesis was that people in this group would be more likely to suffer from these symptoms.
Their main findings were something of a surprise—among their sample of 87 participants, gay and bisexual men actually had a slightly lesser chance of depression and anxiety, along with lower stress levels (as indicated by cortisol and 20 other biomarkers) than heterosexual men.
Perhaps most significant, though, was the secondary finding that they hadn’t even been searching for: In their study, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals all tended to have lower stress levels and a smaller chance of depressive symptoms if they’d come out to friends and family than those who’d kept their sexual orientation a secret. “Coming out,” the authors write, “may no longer be a matter of popular debate, but of public health.”
The research team, in a study led by Robert-Paul Juster, came to the conclusion after inviting Montreal residents of diverse sexual orientations to participate in a series of health assessments. The participants—all around 25 years old—filled out surveys about their mental health and provided saliva, blood and urine samples so that the researchers could examine a range of chemical biomarkers that reflect chronic stress. These biomarkers–cortisol, along with insulin, sugar, cholesterol, adrenaline and inflammation levels–together are known as an allostatic load.
They found that, within the group of 46 lesbian, gay or bisexual participants, the 31 individuals who’d come out had noticeably lower cortisol levels than the 15 who hadn’t disclosed their orientation to others. Additionally, survey answers indicated that the first group had fewer symptoms of depression or anxiety than the other group.
Admittedly, the study’s limited sample size means that these results can’t be interpreted as definitive, and further study is needed to confirm that they hold true on a widespread level. But the results are still fascinating, and could have important medical implications. A higher level of stress, measured in terms of allostatic load, has been linked to everything from cardiovascular disease to an increased overall risk of death.
If coming out provides a means of reducing the risks of these health-related ailments, the researchers write, it provides yet another reason why, as Juster stated, “internationally, societies must endeavor to facilitate self-acceptance among LGBs [lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals] by promoting tolerance, progressing policy and dispelling stigma.”
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