By Kenn Dela Cruz, CEI Intern
Year after year, statistics on the LGBTQ community continue to highlight the climbing prevalence of LGBTQ mental health issues across the United States. Yet, these issues only get national attention when members of the LGBTQ community fall victim to heinous hate crimes. For instance, the mass shooting in the Pulse Night Club, a gay bar, in Orlando, Florida (Alvarez, 2016), and the homicide of Muhlaysia Booker, a black transgender woman who was first attacked and then shot within a month (Fortin, 2019), catapulted the LGBTQ community into the spotlight in recent years.
However, mental health-related issues among LGBTQ youth that don’t make eye-catching headlines continue to be left in the shadows. For example, if it weren’t for social media, the suicide of Nigel Shelby, a 15-year old Alabama high school freshman who took his own life because of homophobic bullying (Street, 2019), would most likely have gone unnoticed.
Just because mental health-related issues among LGBTQ youth are not in the forefront of media coverage does not make them any less real. Much can be done to provide support and resources to mitigate potential mental health risks among LGBTQ youth, who experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than their straight peers.
What do LGBTQ youth face?
LGBTQ youth are faced with difficult situations and interactions that can introduce or exacerbate mental health issues. The first step is increasing awareness of the potential mental health risk factors that LGBTQ youth come up against. This way, teachers, counselors, and other staff are better prepared to provide appropriate and effective support.
Compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ youth are:
Three times more likely to experience mental health conditions, such as major depression or generalized anxiety disorders (National Alliance on Mental Illness; NAMI, n.d.)
Four times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal ideation, and engage in self-harm (NAMI, n.d.)
Two to three times more likely to abuse substances, such as drugs and alcohol (NAMI, n.d.)
At greater risk of harassment, bullying (including cyberbullying), and physical assault (CDC, 2017)
Represented in high proportions among homeless youth (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2012)
Why are LGBTQ youth at greater risk?
The adversity that LGBTQ endure on the community-, school-, and familial-levels may be the driving influences that explain the higher rates in mental-health related issues.
Specifically, LGBTQ youth tend to experience (NAMI, n.d.):
Social stigma, discrimination, and prejudice in school- and community-settings
Rejection and abandonment from peers and family after revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity
Unequal treatment from health care providers who are inexperienced working with LGBTQ youth
Because of these adverse risk factors, LGBTQ youth are a vulnerable population that need additional, specialized resources to support their overall wellbeing.
What can be done on the school-level?
For LGBTQ youth, being in a positive school climate has been linked to decreased rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and substance use (CDC, 2017). For example, schools that have LGBTQ support groups, such as gay-straight alliances, have shown mitigated rates of violent threats, unexcused absences, and suicidal thoughts and attempts among LGBTQ youth.
To promote positive school climate, which in turn, can promote health and safety among LGBTQ youth, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that schools incorporate the following practices:
Prioritize a culture of respect among all students
Establish “safe spaces” where LGBTQ youth can receive support from the school
Encourage students to develop student-led school clubs, such as LGBTQ alliances
Ensure that the health curriculum includes education around health risks (e.g., HIV, STDs) most pertinent to LGBTQ youth
Provide professional development for school staff to be best prepared for working with diverse students, including LGBTQ youth
Work in partnership with community-based organizations that work closely with LGBTQ youth
The implementation of these proactive policies would be indicative of the overall investment in supporting LGBTQ students on the school-level, which can help LGBTQ students feel assured and safe when navigating their journey of accepting and openly expressing who they are to the world.
Alvarez, L. (2016). Orlando Gunman Attacks Gay Nightclub, Leaving 50 Dead. The New York Times.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2017). LGBT Youth. CDCwebsite.
Fortin, J. (2019). A Transgender Woman Who Was Attacked in Dallas Last Month Has Been Found Dead. The New York Times.
National Alliance to End Homelessness. (2012). LGBTQ Youth National Policy Statement. National Alliance to End Homelessness website.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (n.d.). LGBTQ. NAMIwebsite.
Street, M. (2019). 15-Year-Old Nigel Shelby Dies by Suicide After Anti-Gay Bullying. Out Magazine.