Study: Lesbian, bisexual teen girls face more risks than peers

A recent study by Pitt researchers suggests that teenage girls who identify as LGBTQ are at higher risk for substance abuse and behavioral problems.

Published in the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, the study examined data from the Pittsburgh Girls Study, which has collected data from numerous waves of participants since 2000 and assesses girls annually to examine the development of depression and other conduct problems.

The data was collected from young women aged 16 to 19 years old: 1,891 self-identified heterosexual girls and 173 “sexual-minority girls” (bisexual or lesbian). The study also sought to determine if there was a pattern moderated by race.

The authors noted that despite previous literature showing higher risks for “sexual-minority girls,” research “has either combined boys and girls or only focused on behavioral health problems, such as HIV risk behavior, among sexual-minority boys.” The 2013 study is one of a few publications focused exclusively on lesbian and bisexual girls.

While boys abuse drugs more frequently than girls, any use by girls can cause problems specific to the female sex, such as “unintended pregnancy due to risky sexual behavior when intoxicated,” the article states.

Michael Marshal, the primary author of the 2013 study, commented on the numerous risks for sexual-minority girls, such as high rates of suicidal ideation, depression, substance abuse and conduct disorder.

“There is ample evidence that [sexual-minority youth] suffer from highly invalidating environments,” Marshal said.

The only interaction between race and sexuality occurred in the prediction of conduct disorder. The disparity in conduct disorder incidence between sexual-minority girls and heterosexual girls was larger among black girls than that seen in white girls. 

According to Marshal, the study was one of the first to find higher rates of borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis that has both internalizing and externalizing dimensions. Individuals with this disorder often are reckless, exhibiting dysfunctional relationships, emotional instability and an unstable self-image.

In the journal article, Marshal cautions individuals not to overextend the results of the study.

“Despite these alarmingly big disparities reported by [lesbian and bisexual girls], it is important to recognize that many [sexual-minoritygirls] did not report substance use or mental health problems,” she said. “It will be important for future research to focus on [sexual-minority girls] who are happy and healthy, despite the potentially high levels of adversity they face living in a very homophobic and violent culture.”