USC Health Equity Initiative researches LGBTQ mental health

Cece Uhrich, a junior majoring in environmental science and health, recalls feeling “defective” when she was trying to understand her sexuality. She said that the “heteronormativity of society” led her to feel depressed in middle and high school.

Health Equity Initiative members participated in Models of Pride. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jeremy T. Goldbach.

“I couldn’t relate to my friends, and I felt stupid for being the only one who had never kissed a boy,” Uhrich said. “It definitely affected my self-esteem so much growing up, not that I really understood why. I can’t imagine that that was good for me, to not understand my sexuality and not realize that was even an option to not like boys and still be a normal human being.”

Now at USC, she wrote a paper speaking about her experience as a gay woman, but noticed that much of the research she did was solely based on theory — not statistics and hard facts.

USC’s LGBT Health Equity Initiative wants to change that.

The  initiative is a collaboration among faculty, Ph.D. students and undergraduate research assistants studying different aspects of the mental health of LGBT individuals. The research focuses primarily on gender minority and sexual minority individuals.

“The goal [of the initiative] is to improve knowledge so that we can intervene to improve the lives of LGBTQ people across contexts, across age groups, across racial and ethnic boundaries,” said Cary Klemmer, a Ph.D. student working on the initiative. “So that we can understand also the interplay of different factors, like race and ethnicity, on the experiences of LGBTQ people.”

USC Dworak-Peck assistant professor Jeremy Goldbach, the director of the initiative, said that this program is one of few focused on mental health research.

Goldbach said that past funding for research in LGBTQ communities has primarily focused on HIV, as it was an epidemic that needed immediate attention. However, that research was geared toward men, leaving major gaps in knowledge, she said.

“This has left us with a lot of research that’s focused on men, young men and primarily white young men,” Goldbach said. “So that means that we have a whole community out there that we don’t know much about.”

Jeremy Gibbs, a Ph.D. candidate working on the initiative, said that their ability to conduct more comprehensive research has been made possible due to a change in the “social conscience” of the United States.

“Same-sex marriage is allowed now, [and] there are a number of laws that now protect individuals who are sexual minorities or gender minorities,” Gibbs said. “And so there’s been a considerable change over the last five or six years.”

One of these changes includes the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which banned openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from serving in the military.

Now, the Health Equity Initiative is conducting the Military Acceptance Project. With funding provided by the Department of Defense, the two-phase project is looking at the behavioral health needs of active duty LGBT service members by conducting both qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys. The data gathered will be used to recommend improvements to the Department of Defense for the health of LGBT service members.

The initiative is currently working on six other projects as well, including research to understand and reduce suicide risk among sexual minority adolescents and substance abuse among 18- to 24-year-old sexual minority men. It is also running a longitudinal study in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to determine how minority stress may influence health from adolescence into young adulthood.

While Uhrich supports this research and looks forward to information coming from it, she hopes that the research will be presented to the public in a way that is understandable for the LGBTQ youth.

“If they can do that, this will have a huge impact,” Uhrich said. “If you could read something and realize that you’re not alone and you’re not defective for having these experiences … one of the biggest things about accepting your sexuality is not feeling alone and feeling normal, which is something this [initiative] could offer people.”