National Coming Out Day highlights LGBT health disparities

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(CBS) Today is National Coming Out Day - the day each year on which closeted lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) people are encouraged to open up about their sexual orientation.

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The idea behind the day, which occurs each Oct. 11, is that by promoting greater self-acceptance among LGBT people and greater acceptance by the community at large, young LGBT people can be protected from physical and emotional harm.

Evidence suggests they could use some protection. According to the CDC, a 2009 survey of more than 7,000 LGBT students between the ages of 13 and 21 found that, within the past year, 80 percent had been verbally harassed at school, 40 percent had been physically harassed, 60 percent felt unsafe at school, and 20 percent had been physically assaulted at school.

Self-inflicted harm is another problem. Gay youth are more likely than their straight peers to use drugs and have unprotected sex. And a 2006 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that "over half of GLB students had thoughts about suicide and 37.4 percent reported a suicide attempt."

The authors of the study concluded that sexual orientation itself accounted for only a small portion of the increased risk for suicidal thoughts and attempts, adding that the risk could be held in check by factors including a better sense of "connectedness" with family members and with "caring" teachers and other adults.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages young people to open up about their sexual orientation, pointing out that "homosexuality is not a mental disorder." But it says the decision about whether to come out is complicated one:

"Some people wrestle with this for years before finally deciding to do it. Others keep their sexual orientation a secret for their entire lives. Remember that only you can decide the best time to share this information with your family and friends. Do not feel pressured to 'come out' before you are ready."

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