Depression and self-harm from adolescence to young adulthood in sexual minorities compared with heterosexuals in the UK: a population-based cohort study

Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2019 Feb;3(2):91-98. doi: 10.1016/S2352-4642(18)30343-2. Epub 2018 Dec 12.


Background: There are few population-based cohort studies of the emergence, development, and persistence of mental health problems in sexual minorities compared with heterosexuals. We compared trajectories of depressive symptoms in sexual-minority adolescents and heterosexual adolescents from when they were aged 10 years to 21 years, and examined self-harm at ages 16 years and 21 years.

Methods: The study included 4828 adolescents born between April 1, 1991, and Dec 31, 1992, from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children birth cohort (Bristol, UK) who reported their sexual orientation when aged 16 years. Depressive symptoms were assessed with the short Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (sMFQ) at seven timepoints between ages 10 years and 21 years. A self-harm questionnaire was completed at ages 16 years and 21 years. Analyses were linear multilevel models with growth curves (depressive symptoms), logistic multilevel models (self-harm in the previous year at ages 16 years and 21 years), and multinomial regression (lifetime self-harm with and without suicidal intent at age 21 years).

Findings: At age 10 years, depressive symptoms were higher in sexual minorities (mean sMFQ 4·58 [SD 3·59]) than in heterosexuals (3·79 [3·36]) and increased with age to a larger extent. Depressive symptoms increased at each timepoint by 0·31 sMFQ points in hetereosexuals (95% CI 0·27-0·34), and by 0·49 sMFQ points in sexual minorities (0·40-0·59). Sexual-minority adolescents were more likely than heterosexual adolescents to report self-harm in the previous year at ages 16 years and 21 years (adjusted odds ratio 4·23, 95% CI 2·90-6·16), with no evidence that this estimate decreased with age (p=0·80). When aged 21 years, sexual minorities were 4·53 (95% CI 3·02 to 6·78) times more likely to report lifetime self-harm (ie, on at least one previous occasion) with suicidal intent than heterosexuals.

Interpretation: Mental health disparities between heterosexuals and sexual minorities are present early in adolescence and increase throughout the school years, persisting to young adulthood. Prevention of these mental health problems and early intervention must be a priority.

Funding: Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Depressive Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Self-Injurious Behavior / epidemiology*
  • Sexual and Gender Minorities / psychology*
  • Sexuality / psychology*
  • United Kingdom
  • Young Adult