same-sex-coupleMay 20, 2013; National Public Radio (NPR)

Apparently, public policy debates make us sick—literally. Studies done among gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans find that the mental health of those individuals seemed to suffer in states that passed laws to prohibit same-sex marriage.

Several states passed laws to formally ban gay marriage starting in 2004. Coincidentally, the National Institutes of Health conducted a survey of 43,093 Americans regarding their mental health right before that. (To test the validity of the self reports, psychiatrists also interviewed a sampling of respondents, and their medical diagnoses closely matched the findings of the survey.)

Right after some states passed the bans, the NIMH conducted a second round of interviews. Then, Mark Hatzenbuehler analyzed both sets of data to see if the mental health of people who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual had changed in those states. An analysis of the findings is summarized here, but in short, Hatzenbuehler says, “Lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals who lived in the states that banned same-sex marriage experienced a significant increase in psychiatric disorders.”

There was a 37 percent increase in mood disorders,” he says, “a 42 percent increase in alcohol-use disorders, and—I think really strikingly—a 248 percent increase in generalized anxiety disorders.”

We showed the psychiatric disorders did not increase in lesbian, gay and bisexual populations in states that didn’t debate and vote on same-sex marriages. There were also no increases—or much smaller increases—among heterosexuals living in the states that passed same-sex marriage bans.”

Hatzenbuehler also found that, in Massachusetts, gay men experienced fewer stress-related disorders after that state elected to permit gay marriage. The Massachusetts men visited doctors less often and had lower treatment costs after legalization. Researchers noted a decrease in hypertension, depression, and adjustment disorders.

Hatzenbuehler believes that the stresses of the public debates are to blame. “They reported seeing negative media portrayals, anti-gay graffiti. They talked about experiencing a loss of safety and really feeling like these amendments and these policies were really treating them as second-class citizens.”—Ruth McCambridge