Extreme mental distress among LGBT people increased during Donald Trump’s political rise and presidency, according to new research published in the journal Economics & Human Biology.
Trump became the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in July 2016 and that same month he selected conservative Christian politician Mike Pence as his running mate. During his administration, Trump opposed legislation that sought to prevent discrimination against LGBT people by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights law.
“I was curious to know whether the average mental health among LGBT people worsened during the Trump presidency, as he and his administration were perceived as anti-LGBT,” said study author Masanori Kuroki, an associate professor of economics at Arkansas Tech University.
For his study, Kuroki examined data collected from 2014 to early 2020 by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), an annual survey conducted by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to gather information about risk factors and behaviors among adults. About 450,000 adults are interviewed each year, providing Kuroki with a sample size of approximately 1.06 million American adults.
The survey asked the respondents to indicate how many days during the past 30 days they considered their mental health to be “not good.” Those who gave the answer 30 were considered as experiencing extreme mental distress.
The researchers found that LGBT people were more likely than non-LGBT people to report extreme mental distress even before Trump’s presidency. But Kuroki observed “a marked increase” in extreme mental distress among LGBT people starting in early 2016. The findings suggest that “the Trump administration possibly adversely affected mental health among LGBT people,” Kuroki told PsyPost.
In 2014, the proportion of adults suffering from extreme mental distress was 7.7% for LGBT individuals and 4.8% for non-LGBT individuals. By 2019, that proportion had increased to about 12% for LGBT adults, while the proportion for non-LGBT adults remained at about 5%. Moreover, the researchers found that LGBT people in states where Trump won experienced a larger increase in extreme mental distress compared to LGBT people living in states where Trump lost to Hillary Clinton.
“Before he became President of the United States, Trump was widely considered as an anti-LGBT presidential candidate, who would roll back critical legal protections if he was elected president. Since taking office, the Trump administration adopted a broad anti-LGBT agenda that threatened the rights of LGBT people,” Kuroki wrote in his study.
“Based on the hypothesis that anti-LGBT sentiments and policies might have led to higher levels of mental distress among LGBT people, this study has examined whether exceptional levels of mental distress have become more common among LGBT people, relative to non-LGBT people, following Trump’s ascendance to the presidency in early 2016. The results indeed revealed a concerning rise in poor mental health among LGBT people after Trump’s presidency became a real possibility.”
But the BRFSS collects cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal, data. In other words, the survey acquires a new sample of individuals every year, rather than repeatedly questioning the same individuals over time. This limits the ability to draw conclusions about cause and effect. “The finding is not causal, and we cannot confidently attribute the rise in mental distress among LGBT to Trump or his administration,” Kuroki said.
Kuroki believes that future research should examine whether the mental health of LGBT people improves under the new Biden administration.
“In contrast to the Trump administration, the Biden administration has already signaled that protecting the rights of LGBT people is important,” Kuroki wrote. “… If presidents affect LGBT people’s mental health, then we should expect that the extreme mental distress gap between LGBT people and non-LGBT people to narrow under the Biden presidency.”
The study, “The rise in extreme mental distress among LGBT people during Trump’s rise and presidency“, was published online June 23, 2021.