Editorial: Mental health care needed for LGBTQ youth

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday May 1, 2024
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A graph shows rates of LGBTQ+ young people who have felt discriminated against in the past year by race/ethnicity. Image: Courtesy The Trevor Project<br>
A graph shows rates of LGBTQ+ young people who have felt discriminated against in the past year by race/ethnicity. Image: Courtesy The Trevor Project

The Trevor Project released its 2024 National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ+ Young People this week, and it should come as no surprise that queer youth continue to report high rates of mental health challenges, suicide risk, and associated experiences of anti-LGBTQ+ victimization such as bullying, discrimination, threats of physical violence, and conversion therapy, a news release from the West Hollywood-based nonprofit stated.

This is the sixth national queer youth survey The Trevor Project has undertaken. According to the report, a quantitative cross-sectional design was used to collect data through an online survey platform between September 13 and December 16, 2023. A sample of individuals aged 13 to 24 who resided in the United States, including its territories, was recruited via targeted ads on social media. No recruitment was conducted via The Trevor Project's website or social media channels, the report stated. Out of an initial number of 72,424 individuals who began the survey, many were deemed ineligible or did not provide consent, among other reasons. This resulted in a final analytic sample of 18,663 LGBTQ+ young people ages 13 to 24 in the U.S., according to the report.

The survey is one of the largest and most diverse of its kind and, because of that, offers some unique insights, though the findings are in line with previous surveys. Overall, 39% of LGBTQ+ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year — including 49% of transgender and nonbinary young people, and more that one in 10 (12%) of all LGBTQ+ youth attempted suicide in the past year, according to the report. Queer youth of color reported higher rates than their white peers, "Yet despite these mental health challenges, 50% of LGBTQ+ young people who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it," an accompanying news release stated.

This, of course, is not limited to queer youth. Gallup released a survey this week showing that three-quarters of Americans think mental health issues are identified and treated worse than physical health issues in the U.S. (The survey, conducted by Gallup and West Health, was based on a Gallup panel of about 100,000 people who are selected randomly.) And while the survey focused on adults, it's clear from the Trevor report that young people share similar views. It points to the need in this country to increase mental health services for everyone.

The Trevor Project pointed out that as in previous surveys, anti-LGBTQ+ victimization was strongly associated with suicide risk — adding to the long-established reality that queer youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk, but rather, placed at a higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized by others. This is demonstrated in that 90% of LGBTQ+ young people who said their well-being was negatively impacted due to recent politics, the report noted.

Nearly half, 45%, of trans and nonbinary young people reported that they or their family have considered moving to a different state because of LGBTQ+-related politics and laws. California, of course, is a refuge for trans kids and their families, thanks to a bill authored by gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) a few years ago.

The law contains three main components. It prohibits California law enforcement from cooperating with other states in enforcing laws that authorize agencies of those states to remove a child from their parent or guardian based on the parent or guardian authorizing gender-affirming care for the youth.

It also prohibits compliance with any out-of-state subpoenas seeking health or other related information about people who come to California seeking gender-affirming care, if the subpoena relates to efforts to remove trans children from their parents. Lastly, it restricts law enforcement from arresting or extraditing individuals to other states for receiving or providing gender-affirming care where that conduct is lawful in California.

A federal judge last month tossed a lawsuit filed by a conservative organization that alleged the law violated parental rights. The organization, Our Watch with Tim Thompson, claimed it was forced to spend more of its resources to "counteract the harms" of the bill. But a judge disagreed and said the organization's decision on where to spend its resources is voluntary.

Yet, even with strong protections in place, there are places in the Golden State where it's hard for trans and nonbinary youth to live authentically. Conservative school boards have adopted forced outing policies, and local political leaders are clinging to the false "anti-woke" narratives with decisions to ban Pride flags and other symbolic signs of the LGBTQ community that let queer youth know they have support.

So, these things are all related, as the report makes clear. "Much of our efforts to address the public health crisis of suicide among LGBTQ+ young people are made that much harder by the ongoing wave of anti-LGBTQ+ policies pushed by extremist lawmakers across the country," stated Janson Wu, senior director of state advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project. He added, "With such striking numbers and families literally wanting to uproot their homes to seek safety, lawmakers must seriously reconsider the real and damaging impact that their anti-LGBTQ+ policies and rhetoric create."

What's also striking — and predictable — is that LGBTQ youth fare better when they live in supportive environments, the report stated. Having access to such living situations "was associated with lower odds of suicide risk," the report stated. "Further, transgender and nonbinary people who had access to gender-affirming clothing, gender-neutral bathrooms at school, and had their pronouns respected by the people they live with had lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not."

And yet, in many parts of the country, we still see people disrespect trans and nonbinary youth (and adults), both on social media and in person. The whole ugly online meme of "My pronouns are ..." followed by an object or some snarky rejoinder, serves as a reminder that society still has a long way to go. And while most adults can handle the cesspool that is much of social media, young people can often be blindsided. The same is true when adults or fellow youth misgender LGBTQ young people at school or school-related functions.

We need look no further than the horrible case of Nex Benedict, the young nonbinary person who ultimately died by suicide, according to authorities, shortly after a physical altercation in a girls' restroom at his Oklahoma high school. National organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign have kept up the pressure on Oklahoma state Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who even as he says that he's an opponent of bullying has misgendered and insulted Benedict, according to HRC President Kelley Robinson.

One obvious change that would help LGBTQ youth is for educators to provide a more welcoming environment at school. We realize this is not always possible, given the policies some conservative school boards have adopted. But supportive parents of queer youth can and should speak up at those school board meetings. The Trevor Project survey noted that most LGBTQ young people who attend school — 78% — reported having at least one adult at school who was supportive and affirming of their LGBTQ+ identity. In terms of actions others can take to support them, the biggest response of those surveyed, at 88%, was "trusting that I know who I am." That was followed by "standing up for me" at 81%.

We stand with LGBTQ youth as they continue to navigate a minefield of hostility. There are resources like The Trevor Project available, but policymakers and political leaders — LGBTQ and straight — need to focus on developing, funding, and implementing changes that will benefit this vulnerable population.

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