Research Exploring the Health, Wellness, and Safety Concerns of Sexual Minority Youth

By Wells, Kristopher | The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Research Exploring the Health, Wellness, and Safety Concerns of Sexual Minority Youth

Wells, Kristopher, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality

Abstract: This article provides an overview of the critical risk factors that negatively impact the health, safety, personal wellness, and educational achievement of sexual minority youth. Contemporary and landmark studies of the key stressors faced by sexual minority are reviewed with an emphasis on Canadian data. Sexual minority youth often encounter multiple risk factors, have fewer protective factors (such as a sense of connectedness to school and family), and experience more bullying, harassment, alienation, suicide ideation, and substance abuse than do their heterosexual peers. Over a decade of research evidence clearly indicates that educational institutions have a legal, ethical, and professional responsibility to respond appropriately to the urgent health, safety, and educational needs of sexual minority youth (Grace & Wells, 2005, 2009; Wells, 2008). A failure to respond by important adults in the lives of such youth, places vulnerable youth at significant risk and denies them access to important protective factors in their lives.


Contemporary research into school violence, bullying, and harassment indicates that it is important for educators to identify the risk and resiliency factors that serve to compromise or promote the healthy individual and social development of sexual minority youth. By understanding these related risk and resiliency factors, educators, health-care professionals, social-service providers, parents, and guardians can more effectively plan for evidence-informed interventions. Such interventions support at-risk youth by activating critical protective factors which may enable them to respond more effectively in overcoming adversity, dealing with stressful life experiences (such as "coming out"), and improving their overall mental health and educational achievement.

Over the past decade much of the research literature has been focused on a deficit model in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified youth have been positioned as being "at-risk" for negative social, emotional, educational, and health outcomes. Thompson (2006) provides this widely held definition of youth who are considered at risk: "[They] are more vulnerable to becoming pregnant, using alcohol and other drugs, dropping out of school, being unemployed, engaging in violence or other high-risk behaviors, and facing an increased propensity to develop a host of mental health problems" (p. 1). Key stressors that mitigate against the healthy development of youth include a history of physical abuse and sexual violence; families dealing with substance abuse, mental health problems and violence; and multiple moves, living in foster care and running away from home (Saewyc, Wang, Chittenden, Murphy, & The McCreary Centre Society, 2006).

Contemporary researchers have expressed a need to move away from an exclusive focus on an "at-risk" paradigm that can serve to pathologize sexual minority youth and position them as "objects of pathos" (Rasmussen, 2006, p. 144). For example, what identities or subject positions are available to sexual minority youth when the vast majority of research and educational interventions have positioned them as at-risk? These "tropes of risk" (Rasmussen, 2006, p. 144), which are premised on models of "normal" adolescent development create sexual minority youth, by default, as "abnormal" and outside the bounds of healthy development.

While this article focuses on risk factors for sexual minority youth, researchers, educators, and public health officials should be mindful of the need to move beyond risk to a focus on the necessary policies, resources, and interventions needed to support sexual minority youth to grow into resilience within heteronormative familial, school, and community-based contexts. Unfortunately, many educational and important social institutions continue to remain blissfully unaware of the significant health, safety, and educational experiences of sexual minority youth under their care.

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