Tapping the Power of Family Acceptance
By 1985, Caitlin Ryan, then a clinical social worker, had lost 100 young gay clients to AIDS. The deaths were all the more tragic, she recalls, because these men did not grow up with parents who accepted their children's sexual orientation. "They couldn't be who they were," Ryan says.
Today, as director of the Family Acceptance Project at SF State, Ryan has channeled her pain into hope for healthier futures for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth. Based on the findings of a groundbreaking study, she and her intervention team help families understand the powerful impact of their words and actions on their children's health and well-being.
Published in the January issue of Pediatrics, the first research paper on the Family Acceptance Project's findings shows that negative family reactions to a child's sexual orientation could not only lead to serious health problems, but could also mean the difference between life and death. Ryan authored the paper with Senior Quantitative Researcher Rafael Diaz, Project Coordinator Jorge Sanchez and University of Utah Psychology Professor David Huebner.
The California Endowment-funded study surveyed young people about family acceptance and rejection related to their LGBT identity during adolescence. White or Latino, rich or poor, young adults who reported higher levels of family rejection during adolescence were over eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide, nearly six times more likely to report high levels of depression, and over three times more likely to report illegal drug use or unprotected sex.
"There is an incredible dearth and lack of awareness about the needs of these families," says Ryan, pointing out that only two groups in the entire state of California offer support services specifically for families with LGBT youth. The Family Acceptance Project is aiming to change that by developing an entirely new family-related model of prevention and care for ethnically diverse LGBT adolescents.
Education and early intervention are crucial, Ryan says, pointing out that homosexuality has long been viewed by health care professionals as "a phenomeonon of adulthood," even though her study found that today's youth are coming out at an average age of 13.4. Supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the project has already led to the creation of a short questionnaire for medical, school-based and social service providers to quickly determine an LGBT adolescent's risk for family rejection and related health and mental health problems.
The project's aim is not to change cultural or religious beliefs, but rather to motivate and empower parents to modify specific behaviors that put their LGBT children at risk -- whether it's blocking access to LGBT peers and support groups or sending children to programs that try to change their sexual orientation. Parents can make a tremendous difference, Ryan says, by learning to stop and reflect before speaking and allowing children to talk, without interrupting. By improving understanding and communication within families, the project aims to build healthy futures for adolescents who too often wind up homeless or in foster care.
The findings of the study have proven too startling for most parents to ignore. "The families we spoke with were willing to modify rejecting behaviors once they realized the impact," Ryan says. "No parent wants harm to come to their child, wants their child to die. Families love their children and want what's best for them."
The Family Acceptance Project is based in SF State's Cesar Chavez Institute. For more information, visit http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/
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