Professor to examine same-sex couples' mental health

Lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience unique stress as part of their status as "sexual minorities" in society, says Health Equity Institute Professor of Sociology Allen LeBlanc, especially when they enter into a relationship.  A new study will explore how same-sex couples face this stress both individually and as partners in a couple.

"I'm interested in how the experience of social stress can change over time, moving from one area of life to another, and in particular how stress is shared between people in relationships," said LeBlanc, who teaches courses on medical sociology and the sociology of mental health.

Health Equity Institute Professor of Sociology Allen LeBlanc

Professor of Sociology Allen LeBlanc.

LeBlanc and his colleagues recently launched Project SHARe: Stress, Health and Relationships, a five-year study that will examine stress among same-sex couples. The project has begun to recruit couples in the Bay Area and Atlanta, and will eventually expand with a large-scale survey that includes couples in other parts of the country as well. The research, said LeBlanc, will be among the first to provide insight into the ways LGBT people experience stress as couples, rather than just as individuals.

"In addition to any challenges one may experience as a result of being lesbian, gay or bisexual, people who are in a same-sex relationship can be exposed to additional stressors associated with that relationship," said LeBlanc. "For example, some individuals may not experience stigma or discrimination on their own, but can begin to experience these kinds of stressors when they become part of a couple, making their sexual minority status visible in new ways."

The study is being funded by a prestigious $2.7 million National Institutes of Health grant awarded in spring 2012. LeBlanc has assembled a team, including researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, who are recruiting participants through the project's website and outreach in gay and lesbian communities.

Working with colleagues at UCLA, LeBlanc has previously studied mental health among older gay men, finding that gay-related stigmas significantly affect their well-being. Other research has found that sexual minority stressors can lead to a range of mental health issues in LGBT people. But studies so far have focused mostly on individuals, not couples.

"We will explore the important questions of how stress affects the likelihood that couples will stay together and how they manage stress as a couple. We hope to identify the stressors that are most harmful to their mental health, and well as the social supports that help them remain resilient," he said.

LeBlanc and his team will recruit a diverse sample of 120 couples -- 60 couples each in the Bay Area and Atlanta. The participants will represent male and female couples, different relationship durations and ethnic minorities. Once the couples are selected, they will participate in an in-depth interview about the rewards and challenges of being in a same-sex relationship. These couples will also refer the researchers to other couples who might participate in later stages of the research.

"Our hope is that identifying same-sex couples in these ways will help us learn from couples who represent the great diversity of sexual minority communities in the U.S.," said LeBlanc.

LeBlanc said the study will also provide a broad framework for further research into the ways social stress is shared between people in other kinds of relationships.
-- Philip Riley