High school is a social jungle, but it's even harder for teens who identify as a sexual or gender minority (SGM) — perhaps as homosexual, bisexual or non-binary. For them the risk of being bullied is especially great, and the consequences — an increased chance of suicide, depression, sleep problems and eating disorders are especially serious.

A recent study looked at the effect on the health of SGM teens of being bullied for other reasons, such as body weight, religion or disability status.

Over ninety percent of sexual or gender minority adolescents reported at least one incident of bullying, more than twice that of estimates from previous studies.

Because schools can foster a climate of acceptance among students, researchers from the University of Connecticut wanted to see if having a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) organization at school helped reduce bullying for any reason. They found that it did. Having a GSA reduced instances of bullying not only regarding students’ gender identity and sexuality, but for other reasons as well.

“When considering approaches to reduce health risks, it is important to understand the range of bias-based bullying SGM teens experience,” Leah Lessard, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor. Because each form of bias-based bullying is an increased risks to a student's mental and emotional health, approaches that promote social acceptance and inclusion within schools are needed.

The researchers analyzed data from a national, web-based survey of more than 17,000 teens between the ages of 13 and 17. They found that 91 percent of sexual or gender minority adolescents reported at least one instance of bullying, which is more than twice that of estimates from previous studies of mostly non-sexual or gender minority youth (36 to 40 percent).

And 73 percent reported being bullied for reasons other than sexual or gender identity. For example, 57 percent said they were bullied because of their weight, 30 percent said they were bullied because of their race or ethnicity, and 27 percent said they were bullied because of their religion.

Students involved in gay-straight alliances share a common goal of addressing social inequality and form friendships that help reduce the stigma that may be connected to sexuality, gender identity, religion or body type. “What makes GSAs so unique is that they bring different groups of students together and provide opportunities for them to bond over a shared interest in addressing social inequality,” said Lessard, a postdoctoral fellow at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

These friendships can be a critical social resource that prevents bullying before it happens in the first place and not just for those who are LGBTQ. Students are less likely to be bullied while walking down a hallway with friends than when they are alone. And if bullying does occur, friendships can provide emotional support, which helps reduce the risk of negative consequences. “It is important that SGM teens have supportive allies and friends they can rely on to stick up for them and hold other peers accountable for exclusionary attitudes and behaviors,” explained Lessard.

Although COVID-related school closures have reduced the opportunities for in-person bullying, cyberbullying is still an issue, so it is important that sexual or gender minority youth have a strong support base they can rely on if cyberbullying occurs. “In the absence of in-school meetings, educators and student leaders can host virtual GSA meetings to improve students' access to social resources, and use learning platforms to continue to foster social inclusion outside of school,” she added.

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.