Jessica Fish believes ending discrimination towards the LGBTQ community starts with studying the reasons for and the effects of this prejudice.
Fish, a postdoctoral fellow in UT’s Population Research Center, focuses on the relationship between LGBTQ communities and mental health and alcohol use. Fish also uses her research to educate people about how to promote the health and well-being of the LGBTQ community.
Fish said her research has shown that LGBTQ youth are exposed to discrimination and victimization from peers, teachers and parents. She added that as a result, LGBTQ youth experience more depression and suicidal thoughts and are more likely to experiment with alcohol use than heterosexual youth of the same age.
“One of the most important things I have learned thus far is that experiences of sexual-orientation-based discrimination have measurable consequences for the health and well-being of LGBTQ people,” Fish said.
Fish said she wanted to explore whether these experiences of discrimination and victimization had a lasting impact on LGBTQ youth as they aged into adulthood. Fish said she was also interested in finding ways to improve their health outcomes.
“Unfortunately, early experimentation with alcohol use during adolescence is linked to later risk for excessive alcohol use and alcohol use disorders among adults,” Fish said. “If we can prevent early use, we might be able to combat later risk.”
Fish’s research looks at parts of the social system, such as families, schools, communities and laws that make youth vulnerable to poor mental health and alcohol use.
“The reason we see the disparities in health and alcohol use in this population is directly related to experiences of prejudice and stigma, so we need to denounce and change those who perpetrate discrimination, not those who experience it,” Fish said.
Fish said she wanted to approach her research from this perspective. She used survey data from youth and young adults to model how family support and school contexts are associated with alcohol use during adolescence and young adulthood.
“If we can show that positive school and family environments can protect youth as they age, this would provide meaningful information for policies and programs that aim to promote health and well-being for LGBTQ youth,” Fish said.
Human Development and Family Sciences department chair Stephen Russell, who works with Fish in the Human Health and Rights Laboratory, said Fish’s research about LGBTQ alcohol use and LGBTQ research in general is necessary because it helps us understand why some people are more disadvantaged.
“The work is important because there are clear disparities in alcohol problems based on sexual orientation,” Russell said. “We don’t really know why, except that LGBTQ people face discrimination, and yet we know those alcohol problems are strongly linked to later health problems. If we could prevent alcohol problems, we could reduce many problems later on that are health disparities for LGBTQ people.”
Russell said that there is no federal non-discrimination or anti-bullying law for schools that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, and some teachers do not understand discrimination as a cause of bullying.
However, Russell said LGBTQ research has led to many positive changes. He added that his research has helped LGBTQ youth by leading to more training for teachers, the development of new curriculum and updates to laws and policies.
Fish said she believes everyone can and should play a part in making the LGBTQ community feel more accepted.
“Take it upon yourself to help create safe spaces for LGBTQ people,” Fish said. “Show your support. Verbalize your support. Stand up and speak out when you encounter homophobia and transphobia.”