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By Taylor Sisk
Results released recently from a study conducted by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health indicate that lesbian, gay and bisexual North Carolinians face heightened health risks in several regards.
Stress-related mental health issues are of particular concern.
The report, titled “A Profile of North Carolina Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Health Disparities, 2011” was published in the American Journal of Public Health, offering the first statewide evidence of these disparities. In 2011, the state asked about sexual orientation for the first time in its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System polling.
The survey helped develop a profile for lesbians, gays and bisexuals that includes health status, chronic-disease risk behavior, injury prevention, screening behavior, health care access and variables in social environment that can influence health or health behavior.
“For the first time, we have really good data,” said co-author Lee, a Gillings School doctoral student. “For us to intervene and work against existing health disparities, we first have to know what they are.”
The South experiences poorer health outcomes than the rest of the country in a number of areas, regardless of sexual orientation, said co-author Derrick Matthews, a recent Gillings School graduate now on faculty at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health. Many health indicators were no different for sexual minorities than for the general population.
But disparities were revealed that are consistent with findings from other states, including those related to mental health and smoking.
Approximately 2 percent of survey respondents identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. These individuals were more likely to report experiencing five or more days of bad mental health in the past 30 days.
“It’s a very strong and consistent finding across states and surveys, especially for mental health outcomes that are stress related,” Lee said, citing anxiety and depression that result from feelings of alienation or exposure to discrimination.
The survey also found that sexual-minority women were more likely than heterosexual women to smoke and to be stressed about having enough money to pay rent or a mortgage.
James Miller, executive director of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, expressed surprise at the higher incidence of smoking, saying that considerable effort had been made to discourage tobacco use among the people for whom his organization advocates.
He called QuitlineNC, a free phone service that helps people kick tobacco, an “example of an amazing government-funded program” that works.
“From a policy standpoint, making the case for change requires this data,” Miller said.
“Research being done on this topic moves the dial forward and it gives individuals and organizations the knowledge base to best advocate for our communities,” he said. “We’ve known these disparities exist anecdotally, but having evidence to support our causes truly empowers us.”
Lee hopes to use the data to “build into the state’s programs and policies better strategies for including LGBT people and working on reducing some of these disparities.”
It’s important, he said, that LGBT communities be key participants in public-health efforts, serving, for example, on advisory boards and helping shape communication initiatives.
The researchers now plan to look at the effects of the passing of Amendment One on the health of sexual minorities in North Carolina. Lee said that data from other states has indicated that when similar legislation has been passed, there’s been a spike in stress-related mental health outcomes, and when marriage-equality legislation is passed there’s a drop.