Do shared etiological factors contribute to the relationship between sexual orientation and depression?

Psychol Med. 2012 Mar;42(3):521-32. doi: 10.1017/S0033291711001577. Epub 2011 Aug 26.


Background: Gays, lesbians and bisexuals (i.e. non-heterosexuals) have been found to be at much greater risk for many psychiatric symptoms and disorders, including depression. This may be due in part to prejudice and discrimination experienced by non-heterosexuals, but studies controlling for minority stress, or performed in very socially liberal countries, suggest that other mechanisms must also play a role. Here we test the viability of common cause (shared genetic or environmental etiology) explanations of elevated depression rates in non-heterosexuals.

Method: A community-based sample of adult twins (n=9884 individuals) completed surveys investigating the genetics of psychiatric disorder, and were also asked about their sexual orientation. Large subsets of the sample were asked about adverse childhood experiences such as sexual abuse, physical abuse and risky family environment, and also about number of older brothers, paternal and maternal age, and number of close friends. Data were analyzed using the classical twin design.

Results: Non-heterosexual males and females had higher rates of lifetime depression than their heterosexual counterparts. Genetic factors accounted for 31% and 44% of variation in sexual orientation and depression respectively. Bivariate analysis revealed that genetic factors accounted for a majority (60%) of the correlation between sexual orientation and depression. In addition, childhood sexual abuse and risky family environment were significant predictors of both sexual orientation and depression, further contributing to their correlation.

Conclusions: Non-heterosexual men and women had elevated rates of lifetime depression, partly due to shared etiological factors, although causality cannot be definitively resolved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Twin Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Australia
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology
  • Child Abuse / statistics & numerical data*
  • Depression / epidemiology*
  • Depression / genetics*
  • Depression / psychology
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders
  • Diseases in Twins*
  • Family / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Genetic
  • Prevalence
  • Risk Factors
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology
  • Sexual Behavior / statistics & numerical data*