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Home > Research Articles > Young Gay Men Are Anxious, Depressed And Ignorant Of Their HIV Status

Economic & Social Research Council

Monday, March 17, 2003

March 17, 2003

(Economic & Social Research Council) -- An alarming number of young gay men appear to be highly anxious and depressed, expressing high levels of self-hatred and low self-esteem, according to new research funded by the ESRC.

And whilst they are aware of health warnings, the majority have had unprotected sex and few know their current HIV/AIDS status, says the study led by Dr Debra Bekerian of the University of East London's School of Psychology.

Based on preliminary analyses, the report also suggests that young gays who claim to have been traumatised in the past, perhaps through loss of a friend, abuse or violence, are less likely to engage in unsafe sexual practices once they know their current HIV status.

This suggests that trauma may have a protective effect on health behaviour.

Most of those interviewed for the study, in youth clubs and groups in London and East Anglia, considered current health messages to be too clinical and irrelevant to situations in which young gays have sex. They suggested improvements, including use of the Internet.

The 1980s saw an unprecedented number of gay men dying of HIV and AIDS-related illnesses, and a subsequent hard-hitting education campaign from the Government and health authorities.

Response from the gay community was positive and reports of sexually transmitted infections fell rapidly.

The new study, however, comes against recent evidence of an increase in reported infections among young gay males between the ages of 18 and 29, with occasional high-risk sex also spreading.

Gay males are becoming sexually active as early as 14 years of age, and may not have the experience or assertiveness to adopt safer sex, for example by using a condom, says the report.

So there is a fair chance of getting an infection right from the start.

The report points out that little formal education is offered to support young gays to behave responsibly, as the Local Government Act prevents any explicit promotion of homosexuality in schools.

There is also less general interest in AIDS and HIV than there was 20 years ago, with little mass media coverage given to the topic, so that young gays assume these are diseases relevant to an older generation. Other research also suggests they feel it is "who you are" and not "what you do" which decides levels of personal risk.

Said Dr Bekerian: "To the extent that these findings are a representative sample, they suggest that young gays are suffering from serious negative affect and mental health issues and that some formal attention needs to be given to this problem."

It is worrying, says the report, that whilst most gays questioned reported having had unprotected sex at least once, they appeared complacent about possible effects on their health.

According to the research, young men who experienced some sort of trauma were less likely to have engaged in sex in the past six months than those who claimed never to have been traumatised.

Said Dr Bekerian: "These preliminary findings have serious implications for educators, health practitioners and policymakers who seek to promote safer sexual behaviour in young gays.

"Future research needs to establish whether these findings are representative of young gay males exclusively, or whether they reflect trends in an entire generation of young people."