CDC: Why Gay and Bisexual Teens Are More Likely to Risk Their Health

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In the largest study of its kind, government health officials report that gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers are significantly more likely to engage in risky, unhealthy behaviors — such as smoking, drinking, using drugs, having unprotected sex and contemplating suicide — than their straight peers.

The new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is based on data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys, which were conducted from 2001 to 2009 and involved high-school students in seven states and six large urban school districts (including New York City, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Milwaukee and San Diego). The surveys asked teens about all manner of risky behaviors, including whether they had ever used heroin or tried throwing up to lose weight, their habits regarding unprotected sex, whether they drove after drinking alcohol, whether they wore seatbelts and bike helmets, carried a gun or drank soda every day. The surveys also asked about teens’ sexual orientation.

(More on TIME.com: Obese Teens Are More Likely to Smoke, Have Riskier Sex)

What researchers found was that students who identified as being gay, lesbian or bisexual were more likely to report engaging in 70% of all the risk behaviors measured, compared with heterosexual students, particularly behaviors related to violence (like not going to school for fear of personal safety) or to attempted suicide (such as making a suicide plan), tobacco use, alcohol use, other drug use, sexual behaviors and weight management.

The disparities were dramatic: for example, while 8% to 19% of straight teens reported smoking cigarettes, about 20% to 48% of gay teens reported the same. Bisexual teens reported the highest rates of many risky behaviors, even higher than gay and lesbian students; 33% to 63% of bisexual students reported binge drinking, for instance, compared with up to 16% to 44% of straight students and 17% to 44% of gay students.

Why? Reported The Advocate:

Much of what’s ailing these students can be attributed to a lack of “safe and supportive environments,” according to the CDC report, which mentioned a survey that found gay and lesbian students feel unsafe while at school.

The CDC calls for state and local governments to do more — in the form of policies or programs such as gay-straight alliances — to combat what’s happening to gay youth. It also calls for better information. The center’s analysis was based on a common tool for judging the risk of students — called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System — but in 2009, only 10 states and seven large school districts even asked whether the students were gay or bisexual.

(More on TIME.com: Gay-Friendly Communities Are Good for Straight Teens Too)

“This report should be a wake-up call,” Dr. Howell Wechsler, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, said in a statement. “We are very concerned that these students face such dramatic disparities for so many different health risks.”

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