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Disclosing a sexual identity and stress

Disclosing a Sexual Identity is a Persistent Stressor Throughout the Lives of Sexual Minority Youth That Has Important Implications for Their Mental Health

Allen B. Mallory, Amanda M. Pollitt, Meg D. Bishop, and Stephen T. Russell


Youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual – known collectively as sexual minority youth – experience stress associated with their nonheterosexual identity, behavior, and/or attraction during adolescence. Adolescence and young adulthood are often the periods of life when young people first tell their friends and family that they identify as a sexual minority. In other words, they “come out.” When families and friends accept youths’ sexual orientation, coming out can be beneficial for the mental health of sexual minority youth.

But disclosing a sexual minority identity can also be stressful and risky. This is particularly true when sexual minority youth are rejected by their families or victimized by their peers. Indeed, the stress tied to telling others about their sexual minority identity helps explain higher levels of depression among these youth.

Sexual minority youth have higher levels of depression in both adolescence and young adulthood compared to heterosexual youth. Depression symptoms in the general population typically peak in adolescence and decline during the transition to adulthood. Preliminary evidence suggests that the depression symptoms of sexual minority youth decline over time similar to the declines seen in heterosexual youth. Similar to this preliminary evidence, the authors of this brief hypothesize that the depression symptoms for sexual minority youth will also decline between adolescence and early adulthood. 

The risk for additional stress and potential for compromised mental health tied to disclosing one’s sexual identity are well documented. However, that evidence generally looks at disclosure stress at one time point in a sexual minority youth’s life when youth are asked to recount their first experiences coming out to others.

This brief reports on a recent study that extends previous research by focusing on how the stress from disclosure and depression change over the transition to adulthood. Recognizing that sexual minority youth come out to multiple people in different contexts throughout adolescence and young adulthood, the authors conduct one of the first longitudinal studies to explore disclosure stress and depression. To do so, they interviewed a large sample of sexual minority youth and young adults aged 15 to 24 every nine months over three years. The authors also examine whether changes in disclosure-related stress are correlated with changes in depression symptoms.

Key Findings

  • Disclosure stress increased over time, despite youth reporting fewer disclosures at older ages.
  • High levels of disclosure stress related to higher depression symptoms. But as predicted, the depression symptoms for sexual minority youth decreased as participants entered young adulthood.
  • More disclosure stress at younger ages more strongly contributed to higher levels of depression symptoms than disclosure stress at older ages. As such, stressful disclosures may matter more for depression symptoms at younger ages. See figure.
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Note: Findings are from a longitudinal study of sexual minority youth and young adults aged 15 to 24 who were interviewed every nine months over three years about the stress associated with disclosing a sexual identity and their symptoms of depression.

Policy Implications

Supporting sexual minority youth when they disclose their sexual identity in adolescence and young adulthood can have long-term benefits for their mental health. Sexual minority youth may be “out” to more people as they get older. Still, it is important to recognize that youth will continue to disclose a sexual identity, with new people and with new sexual identities, as they enter new contexts such as college, new jobs, new friendships, and new healthcare settings. These new disclosures, in turn, can be very stressful in unsupportive environments. 

Individuals can support someone who discloses their sexual identity by accepting and embracing their identity, keeping their identity private, not making their disclosure about you or your organization, and recognizing that their sexual identity is one of many parts of who they are. Policymakers can support sexual minority youth by ensuring that all policies – for example, anti-bullying policies in schools – include the needs of sexual minority youth. These inclusive policies can then provide structural support for youth who may disclose a sexual identity.


Mallory, A.B., Pollitt, A.M, Bishop, M.D. & Russell, S.T. (2021). Changes in disclosure stress and depression symptoms in a sample of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Developmental Psychology 57(4):570-583. DOI: 10.1037/dev0001168

Suggested Citation

Mallory, A.B., Pollitt, A.M, Bishop, M.D. & Russell, S.T. (2021). Disclosing a sexual identity is a persistent stressor throughout the lives of sexual minority youth that has important implications for their mental health. PRC Research Brief 6(9). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/14898

About the Authors

Allen B. Mallory (mallory.102@osu.edu) is a Presidential Postdoctoral Scholar at The Ohio State University in the Department of Human Sciences at The Ohio State University; he was previously a graduate research trainee in the Population Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Amanda M. Pollitt is an assistant professor of health sciences at Northern Arizona University; she was previously a postdoctoral fellow in the Population Research Center. Meg D. Bishop is a PhD student in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and graduate research trainee in the Population Research Center. Stephen T. Russell (stephen.russell@utexas.edu) is chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, director of the School of Human Ecology, and a faculty scholar in the Population Research Center. At UT Austin, Russell holds the Priscilla Pond Flawn Regents Professorship in Child Development, Amy Johnson McLaughlin Administrative Chair in Human Ecology, and the Elizabeth Tarpley Regents Fellowship in Textiles and Clothing.


This work was supported by the Priscilla Pond Flawn Endowment at the University of Texas at Austin. It was also supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development infrastructure (P2C HD042849) and training (T32HD007081) grants, both awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin. This research uses data from the Risk and Protective Factors for Suicide among Sexual Minority Youth study, designed by Arnold H. Grossman and Stephen T. Russell, and supported by award R01MH091212 from the National Institute of Mental Health. This research was also supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health grant F31MH115608 awarded to Allen B. Mallory as well as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism grant F32AA025814 awarded to Amanda M. Pollitt. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.