Student Well-Being

Incarcerated LGBTQ Youth Are Struggling. Here’s How Bad It Is

By Eesha Pendharkar — December 02, 2022 5 min read
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LGBTQ youth in juvenile detention centers face far greater mental health challenges compared with students in public schools. They reported higher instances of suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and self-harm, according to a new report by the Williams Institute at UCLA.

The report is based on data from only one state, Minnesota, because most states do not collect information about the mental health of incarcerated students.

Compared with straight, cisgender students in public schools, incarcerated LGBTQ youth were twice as likely to consider or think about suicide, six times more likely to attempt suicide, and almost four times more likely to engage in self-harm, the report said.

Even within correctional facilities, LGBTQ youth were at a greater risk of suicide and self-harm, compared with their straight, cisgender peers.

Forty two percent of LGBTQ youth in correctional facilities said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year, 38 percent said they had attempted suicide, and 58 percent said they had engaged in self-harm, such as cutting, burning, or otherwise injuring themselves on purpose.

Based on the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, the report compared mental health challenges faced by public school students with those in correctional facilities, and broke it out by what it termed gender and sexual minorities. The survey results include responses from 72,102 public school students and 222 youth in juvenile correctional facilities.

LGBTQ youth were not only overrepresented in correctional facilities, they also had faced more trauma in their lives compared with non-LGBTQ youth, both in schools and the juvenile justice system, according to the report. The combination of these factors is what led them to experience heightened mental health challenges, said Ilan Meyer, an author of the report, and a distinguished senior scholar for public policy at the Williams Institute and professor emeritus at Columbia University.

“When you put the picture together, you see that these are really kids that need support, need help,” Meyer said.

“But for many reasons—including prejudice and stigma against sexual and gender minorities—end up being treated by correctional facilities, which sets them on a road to a really difficult life and really tragic consequences.”

Incarceration is particularly traumatic for LGBTQ youth

Being in correctional facilities may be a uniquely harmful experience for sexual and gender minorities, who have to manage the stressors of being incarcerated while navigating their identity, which can increase exposure to violence, bullying, and isolation, the report said.

This is especially true for incarcerated transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming youth, who tend to be in sex-segregated housing facilities that often do not match their gender identities or expressions—putting them at a higher risk for victimization and exacerbating their mental health challenges.

But LGBTQ youth start experiencing trauma well before they are sent to correctional facilities. More than half—about 54 percent—of incarcerated LGBTQ youth said they experienced four or more adverse childhood experiences, including incarceration of a parent; living with someone who uses too much alcohol, abuses drugs, or has serious mental health problems; experiencing verbal or physical abuse by a parent; witnessing domestic violence; and being the victim of sexual abuse.

These adverse childhood experiences are linked to mental health challenges, the authors said. In contrast, 6 percent of non-LGBTQ youth in public schools reported the same experiences.

“Thinking about equipping correctional mental health care providers—social workers, counselors that work within custody settings—to be equipped to speak to the needs of sexual and gender minority youth, I think would be a really important first step, and attending to the needs of these kids,” said Kirsty Clark, another author of the report and a Vanderbilt University assistant professor of Medicine, Health, and Society; Public Policy Studies; and Psychology and Human Development.

Sexual and gender minorities are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system

Young people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, were overrepresented in correctional facilities, according to this report and former research by Meyer.

These young people often are more likely to experience discipline such as expulsion and juvenile correctional system involvement than their heterosexual counterparts, demonstrating a school-to-prison pathway disproportionately impacting them, the report said.

More than 20 percent of youth in public schools reported a sexual or gender minority identity, compared with 28.8 percent in juvenile correctional facilities, according to the report. But other nationally representative studies conducted by Meyer and his colleagues through the Williams Institute also show a similar overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in correctional facilities.

The previous study, published in 2017 in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, also found that sexual and gender minority youth are two to three times more likely to be held in custody for more than a year, compared with heterosexual youth, and that they were often victims of force by other youth in custody. That was case especially for gay and bisexual boys.

The slew of anti-LGBTQ bills may be making the situation worse

Since last year, dozens of districts and states have introduced anti-LGBTQ and specifically anti-transgender policies and state laws, such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. These policies and laws aim to restrict the rights of students to use bathrooms aligning with their gender identity, seek gender-affirming care or counseling at school, participate in high school sports, and read books or participate in classroom discussions about LGBTQ topics.

The onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation may have an adverse impact on mental health in correctional facilities for those who identify as part of the community, Meyer said.

“Some of the trends we’re seeing in states that are bringing anti-gay and anti-trans laws in terms of schools generally, such as Florida, Texas, those are bad indications that things are not necessarily improving,” he said.

“We can’t say with any quantitative empirical evidence how things have changed in the pandemic,” Clark added. “But it’s not a good sign.”

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