Being a teenager is tough. But teens who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) -- as well as those who are still coming to terms with their sexuality -- often have it much tougher still.
Bullying, teasing, harassment, and sometimes physical violence are not uncommon parts of an LGBT teen's daily life at school. In 2009, eight out of 10 LGBT students said they had been verbally harassed at school. In the same survey, nearly half of LGBT students reported that they had been physically harassed that year. Not surprisingly, then, most LGBT students said they don’t feel safe at school.
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Some teens manage to thrive regardless of the troubles they face at school. But many do not. The stress of dealing with discrimination, with peers who treat them poorly, and with schools that don’t provide adequate means of support can lead to depression, anxiety, and, in extreme cases, to suicide.
"Trouble with coping can manifest in a variety of ways," says psychiatrist Edgardo Menvielle, MD, MSHS, who directs the Gender and Sexuality Development Program at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"Being a member of a group that is marginalized puts a lot of pressure on a teenager," Menvielle continues, "and we know that people who experience abuse in childhood, from family or peers, are more likely to have problems as adults, such as suicide, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem."
Greater Risk of Unhealthy Behaviors
The kind of pressure or stress that LGBT teens often experience does not only affect how they feel. It may also affect how they behave.
A CDC report issued in June 2011 shows that gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens are far more likely than heterosexual teens to binge drink, smoke, take drugs, practice unsafe sex, have suicidal thoughts, and take part in other activities that put their health at risk.
The report does not go into the reasons why the differences are so great. But Laura Kann, PhD, who headed the CDC's report, says feeling unaccepted probably plays a big role.
"Clearly, stigma and family approval are involved," says Kann says. "We don't document it here but you can't ignore that it is out there."
Many smaller studies have reported similar rates of risky behaviors among gay teens, but the CDC report was the first to do so on such a large scale. It looked at teens from seven states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin - and from six large urban school districts, including San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and New York.
Gay teens were more likely than hetero teens to participate in seven out of the 10 categories of risky behavior that the CDC studied.
"What was so noteworthy was that the results were so consistent across so many cities and states," Kann says. "While the results themselves were not surprising, it's concerning to see these patterns repeated at location after location."