Same-sex couples with adopted children living in states with anti-gay adoption laws and attitudes had more mental health issues in their first year of parenthood than couples with adopted children living in more accepting states, a new study has found. In addition, same-sex couples with adopted children who perceived higher support from their family and workplace and lived in more gay-friendly neighborhoods reported better mental health than those who did not.
While the results may seem like common sense, this is the first study to examine changes in depression and anxiety across the first year of adoptive parenthood in same-sex couples. It is also the first study to examine mental health among new gay male parents either adoptive or biological.
Dr. Abbie Goldberg, assistant professor of Psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, co-authored the work with JuliAnna Smith at the Center for Research on Families of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Their report appears in the in February 2011 issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, a peer-reviewed publication of the American Psychological Association.
Goldberg profiled 180 individuals in 90 same-sex couples (52 lesbian couples and 38 gay male couples) at three separate times during their first year of parenting an adopted child.
She said in an interview that while the sample size is not huge, the data extends over time, which is an improvement over previous studies that have tried to make related observations looking only at one point in time.
Gay and lesbian adoptive parents living in states with unfavorable laws regarding adoption by gay people showed greater increases in symptoms of depression and anxiety (as measured by standard clinical scales) during the period of study than did individuals living in states with more favorable legal climates.
The effect was most pronounced among those with high levels of internalized homophobia—which was assessed by a questionnaire asking participants how strongly they agreed with statements such as, “If someone offered me the chance to be completely heterosexual, I would accept the chance.”
In comparison, individuals with high levels of internalized homophobia, but who lived in states with favorable legal climates, experienced decreases in symptoms of depression during the period of study.
Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Utah have laws or policies restricting same-sex couples (or unmarried couples, which in those states means all same-sex couples) from jointly adopting. A number of other states also restrict “second-parent adoptions” in which one partner adopts a child who is already the legal child of the other parent.
An Arizona Senate committee on February 2 passed a bill that would give married couples preference in adoption placements. Five days later, a Utah Senate committee tabled a bill that would have allowed second-parent adoptions.
Goldberg explained in an interview that the anti-gay attitudes reflected in anti-gay adoption policies are likely to “trickle down into community attitudes.” These attitudes, her data suggests, can have a negative effect on the mental health of gay and lesbian parents.
While studies show that many people, including straight ones, show an increase in depressive or anxious symptoms in early parenthood, Goldberg explained, most recover later. But, she added, higher levels of depression or anxiety “could have negative effects beyond the individual,” including among their children, especially if the factors causing them—unsupportive workplaces, families, neighborhoods, or laws—don’t change.
In addition to state legal climates, other factors in the study that predicted lower symptoms of depression and/or anxiety among new adoptive parents were workplace support, friend support, relationship quality, and family support.
“Families of origin appear to continue to occupy a socially meaningful role in many lesbians’ and gay men’s lives, even as they begin to form families of their own,” wrote Goldberg. “ . . . Nonsupport may have particularly deleterious consequences on mental health during the transition to parenthood.”
This echoes the findings of Dr. Caitlin Ryan of San Francisco State University, whose Family Acceptance Project has found that acceptance of LGBT youth by parents and caregivers can help protect them against depression, substance abuse, and suicide in early adulthood. Conversely, LGBT young adults whose families rejected them were more than three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts and to report suicide attempts.
Goldberg’s paper notes some of the limitations of her adoption study. A majority of participants lived in states that were “relatively supportive” of adoption by same-sex couples. The study also looked at the effect of anti-gay adoption laws but not at other anti-gay laws, such as marriage bans, and it did not consider the impact of certain factors, such as racial identity.
But Goldberg wrote that the study is “an important first step” towards understanding the mental health of new lesbian and gay adoptive parents.
Although this is the first study to look at lesbian and gay mental health among new adoptive parents, several previous studies have shown a general correlation between states with anti-LGBT laws and negative mental health in LGBT people. Most recently, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention released a comprehensive report on the causes of suicidal behavior in LGBT adolescents and adults. It concluded, “discriminatory laws and public policies have a profound negative impact on the mental health of gay adults.”
The report, published in the January 2011 Journal of Homosexuality, was the result of a conference on LGBT suicide risk sponsored by the Foundation, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC). SPRC is a congressionally mandated and federally funded initiative, managed through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
And HHS’s Healthy People 2020 report, which came out in December 2010 and sets the nation’s 10-year goals and objectives for health promotion and disease prevention, stated that “Research suggests that LGBT individuals face health disparities linked to societal stigma, discrimination, and denial of their civil and human rights. Discrimination against LGBT persons has been associated with high rates of psychiatric disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.”