As the country awaits two important Supreme Court decisions involving state laws on same-sex marriage, a small but consistent body of research suggests that laws that ban gay marriage — or approve it — can affect the mental health of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans.
When several states passed laws to prohibit same-sex marriage, for example, the mental health of gay residents seemed to suffer, while stress-related disorders dropped in at least one state after gay marriage was legalized.
Here’s the research trail:
Beginning around 2004, several states banned gay marriage. Just before that series of bans, the National Institutes of Health happened to conduct a massive survey of 43,093 Americans. The questions elicited detailed information about respondents’ mental health. (To validate what people reported about themselves, psychiatrists also interviewed samples of the people in the survey, and their medical diagnoses closely matched the findings of the survey.)
Soon after the wave of state bans on gay marriage, in 2004 and 2005, the NIMH conducted a second round of interviews, managing to reach 34,653 of the original respondents. (That’s a high rate compared to most polls and surveys.)
Mark Hatzenbuehler, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the health effects of social policies, analyzed the data gathered before and after the bans to determine how the mental health of people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual had changed in those states.
Hatzenbuehler and his colleagues Katie McLaughlin, Katherine Keyes and Deborah Hasin published their analysis in 2010 in the American Journal of Public Health.
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals who lived in the states that banned same sex marriage experienced a significant increase in psychiatric disorders,” Hatzenbuehler says.
“There was a 37 percent increase in mood disorders,” he says, “a 42 percent increase in alcohol-use disorders, and — I think really strikingly — a 248 percent increase in generalized anxiety disorders.”
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