New Research Reveals Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Youth With Depression Use More Cannabis
The connection between depression and increased cannabis consumption among lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) teenagers is more than five times greater than the correlation between the two among heterosexual youth.
That startling new finding is the core of new research published last week in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology by Kira London-Nadeau, a doctoral student and CIHR Vanier Scholar in the Université de Montréal’s Department of Psychology and at the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Centre.
Directed by Professor Natalie Castellanos-Ryan in collaboration with Professors Jean Séguin and Sophie Parent, London-Nadeau examined data from the Longitudinal Study of Child Development in Quebec, which comprises information on 1,548 teen boys and girls, among whom 128 identified as LGB.
“In this study we focused on LGB youth because that’s the information that we had—but this also extends to trans and non-binary youth as well,” London-Nadeau explains. “Queer youth have higher rates of virtually all drug use, but in this case, cannabis use is higher, and mental health challenges are consistently higher as well.”
Higher Rates of Use Among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Youth
The principal finding of London-Nadeau’s research is a marked difference in the increased relationship between cannabis and mental health experienced by LGB youth, though she says the result wasn’t necessarily surprising.
“Queer youth have higher rates of cannabis use and higher rates of mental health issues,” she says. “It makes sense there’s a different context and a different pattern of use.”
Though they expected an overlap between mental health issues and cannabis use, London-Nadeau and her advisors were interested in attempting to determine a direction—whether one circumstance precedes the other in a manner that might explain the association.
The team looked at measures of cannabis use and symptoms of depression and anxiety reported at ages 13, 15, and 17—a period in which teens are both experiencing the onset of mental health issues and also beginning to consume cannabis.
“We do have two-year age gaps, and a lot can happen in those two years,” says London-Nadeau. “But we’re able to see where a teen was at 15 versus 17, and we’re able to control for previous levels of cannabis use, or previous levels of depression and anxiety. We’re able to look at the direction.”
Use at Age 15 Predicts Later Use
A primary finding of the study is the link between depression symptoms at age 15 that predict cannabis use at age 17—among many teens.
“But that relationship is way stronger—five times stronger—in LGB teens,” she explains. “It’s not just a significant difference—the size of the difference is really big as well.”
The inverse, however, did not appear to be the case: cannabis use at 15 did not predict depression levels at 17.
“That direction leads us to infer it seems like LGB teens are having symptoms of depression first, and that’s predicting an increase in their cannabis use after,” argues London-Nadeau. “Beyond that, we can’t say anything caused the other thing.”
Increased Anxiety In Some Youth Over Time
A second finding in the research might appear to be cause for alarm—there was a consistent association in the general sample between cannabis use between ages 13 and 15, and again between 15 and 17, that led to an increase in anxiety symptoms. However, while the finding was consistent regardless of sexual minority status, London-Nadeau says the effect size—the magnitude of the association between cannabis and anxiety—was quite small.
“It wouldn’t be the kind of relationship we’d sound alarm bells about,” she says. “Obviously it’s consistent and that signals something to us, but it doesn’t offer any explanation as to whether there is a causal link between early cannabis use and later anxiety, or if there are other things going on. There are all kinds of things that can come into play—your peers, your social circles. We found a consistent pattern that’s small in magnitude. What that really signifies is to be explored further.”
Future researchers may be able to build on this data to discover broader patterns, London-Nadeau says, and she’s eager to have more controls over information, such as gender identity, as future studies roll out. As the character of information changes, so she expects the studies themselves to change as well.
“This most recent study is descriptive more than explanatory,” she says. “The explanations are what we’re hoping to look into now with some qualitative work, as well as with some work that actually looks at chains of events, like ‘I had depression symptoms and I had a hard time accessing services, so I started smoking more weed because it’s what was accessible to me.’
“That’s something we hear about from queer, trans, and non-binary folks, but there are ways to see if that’s a pattern consistent enough we can find it qualitatively in subsamples.”
A ‘Different’ Relationship With Cannabis Confirmed
Though the researchers controlled for consumption of other drugs (including nicotine and alcohol), some sociodemographic factors, and sex, their last set of data did not include gender measures—though the next wave of data will include that information. But this wave of data contains definitive proof of what London-Nadeau, herself a queer researcher, says she’s heard from peers and others in queer communities for years.
“Our relationship with cannabis seems to be different in some way,” she says. “There is a role for cannabis—there is a relationship between our [consumption of] cannabis and our mental health that is affected by our experiences as queer people, as trans people as non-binary people, and the systems that we interact with.”
London-Nadeau stresses her research does not seek to demonize cannabis, or to discourage people from using cannabis. Instead, she hopes to get a clearer picture of the needs and behaviours of queer people using cannabis following depression.
“Part of that might be within services and supports that would need to be better adapted to the needs of queer, nonbinary, and trans folks, or it could be in other spaces too—it could start as early as in schools, having better spaces that perhaps don’t contribute as much to the difficulties young queer/nonbinary/trans teens are facing within their schools and other community settings they might be in.”
Further Research Ongoing
London-Nadeau has already begun research seeking to provide data upon which such services and supports can be founded. Her present research project deals much more with the context of cannabis and mental health among young adults in their early 20s (above Quebec’s legal cannabis consumption age of 21).
“This research is asking them, with some hindsight, how they describe their relationship between their mental health and their cannabis use—and everything else that’s happening around, including the threat of violence or discrimination or bullying or hostile environments, which is one piece. Another piece is identity development, struggling, and how you fit into your family. The expectations you have of yourself and others have of you. There are all these other factors that come into play differently for different people.”
In short, she says, we now know there to be a difference in how LGB youth relate to cannabis and mental health, confirming years of anecdotal rumour.
“The next step for us,” says London-Nadeau, “is to look more into the why and the how: how can we better support young people so they have options?”
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