(Reuters Health) - Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning adolescents who face bullying and other types of abuse have been told in the media, "It getsbetter" - and new research supports that claim.
In a multi-year study of LGBTQ youth, researchers found that being the victim of bullying and other abuse was linked to psychological distress, but both distress and victimization decreased as the adolescents grew up.
"I think we should be very happy that it does get better, but I think it's important not to forget victimization is important and happens very early," said Michelle Birkett, the study's lead author. "It's not good enough to just wait. It should be tackled early on so kids don't have to experience it."
"I want it to get better sooner," said Birkett, a research scientist at the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
LGBT youth are at increased risk of being bullied. For example, they were twice as likely as their peers to report being physically assaulted at school, in a survey of 10,000 teens by the U.S.-based Human Rights Campaign.
In 2010, columnist and author Dan Savage created the "It Gets Better Project" in response to growing attention to bullying and suicide among LGBT youth.
More than 50,000 videos appeared online of people sharing the message, "It Gets Better," with personal stories, according to the project's website (http://www.itgetsbetter.org). Many videos featured well-known figures, including U.S. President Barack Obama and singer Adam Lambert.
"I wanted to see if it really does get better," said Birkett.
As reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the researchers used data from 231 LGBTQ young men and women who were ages 16 to 20 at the start of the study.
The teens were assessed six times over an average of three and a half years beginning in 2007 or 2008. They rated the amount of bullying or victimization they experienced in the past six months on a scale of 0 to 3, with 0 being never and 3 being three or more times. At age 16, their average victimization score was 0.38, compared to 0.14 by age 24.
They also rated their psychological distress on a scale of 0 to 4, with 0 being "not at all" and 4 meaning "always." On average, the distress scores were 0.84 at age 16. By age 24, the average score fell to 0.54.
Males, some racial and ethnic minorities and transgender individuals reported greater victimization.
The researchers found that victimization was indeed linked with psychological distress, which suggests that decreasing victimization across childhood and adolescence may decrease distress in those populations too.
The study team also found that support, such as from family members, remained relatively stable across adolescence. While that support provided some immediate relief for psychological distress, there was no link between the amount of support the young person got and later distress.
"Family support is important, but it doesn't really protect against the negative effect of bullying and victimization," said Brian Mustanski, the study's senior author and director of IMPACT.
"Go into that school where the bullying is happening and eliminate the bullying," he said.
Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, said one of the study's important messages is the ongoing need for prevention and support.
That may include educating family members about their roles as advocates and creating accepting and inclusive school environments, said Ryan, who was not involved in the new study.
"There are thousands and thousands of school districts," she said. "Many school districts have stepped up and done a good job, but others have not."
Mustanski said school districts should find anti-bullying programs that are backed by science.
"Look for programs that have evidence that they work," he said.
For adolescents who are currently having a difficult time, Ryan said it's important that they reach out for help from a trusted adult.
"There are so many resources now that can provide help and support and give young people hope," she said.
SOURCE: Journal of Adolescent Health, online January 10, 2015.