LGBT youth sidelined by national health report

LGBT youth sidelined by national health report

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A major national report on the health and wellbeing of 15-year-olds in England was published earlier this week. Commissioned by the Department of Health, the What About YOUth? survey was carried out by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC). More than 120,000 15-year-olds took part, answering questions about health behaviours such as smoking, drinking and drug use. The study also reflects their experiences of body image, bullying and mental wellbeing.
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Participants were invited to record their sexual orientation as heterosexual, gay/lesbian, bi or other (they were not given an option to disclose their gender identity), so it is possible to see how young people falling into these categories answered the questions. The findings reflect a picture that is all-too familiar to the authors of smaller, less well-resourced and well-publicised research into the health behaviours and wellbeing of LGBT youth.

Compared with 7.5% of heterosexual 15-year-olds, 17.7% who are lesbian/gay, 24.7% who are bi and 9% who ticked “other” are smokers. The pattern repeats throughout the findings, with lesbian/gay, and particularly bisexual, youngsters reporting higher rates of risky behaviours and lower levels of good health and happiness. Eighty-one per cent of bi 15-year-olds said they had been bullied in the last couple of months, compared with 53.4% of heterosexuals, 74.5% of lesbian/gay kids and 71.2% who ticked “other”.

Almost 40% of bi respondents reported low life satisfaction, compared with just over 12% of heterosexual participants.

And yet these shocking disparities are not reflected in the summary of key findings, which flags significant statistics for the media and other researchers, but buried deep in the detailed report findings. Unsurprisingly, no mainstream media have picked up on these distressing differences of experience. Why should they? They are being signposted towards other findings by a report whose authors have clearly decided that LGBT youth do not really matter.

Now retired, Jan Bridget worked with young LGBT people for over 25 years, supporting them, conducting research and developing resources to improve their care and wellbeing. It was Jan who contacted DIVA to flag up this report and its omission. We would not otherwise have heard about it because since none of the top-line findings related to LGBT young people, the HSCIC had presumably not thought the LGBT media might have an interest in the study.
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Jan told DIVA: “I cried when I looked at the findings: delighted that sexual orientation had been included in a large, mainstream survey with young people; frustrated that the findings were not included in the main report; and sad, very sad, that the invisibility continues. I have done my own research over the years and my findings were substantiated by the Youth Chances project. I had hoped that once there was national data, local authorities would be forced to do something to support LGBT young people and that national strategies would change to include them. How wrong could you be. Now this. It is a perfect example of institutional homophobia.”

How could anyone disagree? The researchers flag up some undoubtedly important findings but who would not consider the fact that lesbian/gay/bisexual/other youngsters are nearly four times more likely than straight kids to feel unhappy is worth picking up and reporting?

DIVA contacted HSCIC to find out.

Chris Roebuck, Head of Profession for Statistics at HSCIC, said: “The new survey was very in-depth and contained more than 70 different survey questions, covering a huge range of topics, about the health and wellbeing of 15-year-olds in England. These topics were mainly designed to allow health professionals within local authorities to target health services in a more effective and specific way.

“We recognise that while we cannot capture the entirety of the survey in the reports itself, there will be data, including information about sexual orientation, that is important to many people. We worked collaboratively with Public Health England to ensure that this data could be added to the data visualisation tool published by Public Health England. This followed consultation primarily with local authorities, which helped to ensure that user needs would be met. We are always very keen to help as many people as possible explore and best understand our data and welcome feedback to help shape how we develop future reports.”

Nevertheless, for LGBT campaigners the decision represents a dismaying missed opportunity.

Heather Williams, Policy, Research & Insight Manager at LGBT Foundation, told DIVA: “We campaign to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity are monitored by researchers, so that variations between LGBT people and the wider population can be identified and addressed. This research clearly shows poorer outcomes for LGB young people than for their heterosexual peers. It is disappointing that this hasn’t been highlighted in the report’s key findings as this would make it more likely that decision makers would take action to address inequalities.”

And that’s why this matters. Information and media attention translates into concern, which translates into funding, which translates into more support and better outcomes for LGBT youth. Over the last 15 years DIVA has seen local resources for young LGBT people dwindle at an extraordinary rate due to funding cuts. A report by NatCen in 2013 suggested that local authorities thought that while LGBT services were “a nice thing to do”, they were amongst the first to go when austerity forced cuts.

Perhaps the one-time funders think that everything’s alright now that LGBT rights are enshrined in a number of relatively recent laws. Well it’s not, as this report clearly shows if you know where to look.
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Our young people – and let’s not forget that we are talking about 15-year-olds here – are significantly more likely to exhibit risky health behaviours such as regular drinking, smoking and drug-taking. They are more likely to be bullied (and to say they have bullied others); they are comparatively less happy.

Somebody has to care about that.

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