Student Well-Being

LGBTQ+ Students With Affirming Schools Report Lower Suicide Risk, Survey Finds

By Eesha Pendharkar — August 24, 2023 4 min read
A sticker with an LGBTQ Pride flag is viewed outside of a classroom door at a high school on Aug. 8, 2023, in Orlando, Fla.
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Respecting LGBTQ+ students’ pronouns, representation in history curriculum and sex education, and offering access to supportive student groups and gender-neutral restrooms can significantly lower their suicide risk.

That’s according to a survey released Thursday by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that annually surveys LGBTQ+ students about their mental health.

In a survey that included almost 16,000 middle and high school students nationwide, the organization found that about 70 percent said they had access to at least one protective factor in school.

The Trevor Project defined the five protective factors as:

  1. Learning about LGBTQ+ people and their experiences in sex education;
  2. Learning about LGBTQ+ stories and people in history class;
  3. Having access to a gender-neutral restroom;
  4. The presence of an on-campus gender and sexuality alliance, or a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), and;
  5. Teachers who respect students’ pronouns.

LGBTQ+ students are at a higher risk of suicide than their cisgender or straight peers, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the presence of one or more of those factors lowers the risk and increases chances that students will think their school affirms their identity, The Trevor Project report finds.

LGBTQ+ middle and high schoolers with access to at least one of those school-related protective factors had 26 percent lower odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared with their peers without access to any of those supports, according to the report.

The new analysis uses the data from The Trevor Project’s annual report on mental health, released earlier this year.

For the 2023 report, the organization surveyed more than 28,000 LGBTQ+ young people between the ages of 13 and 24 across the country, between Sept. 1 and Dec. 12, 2022. For this report, researchers analyzed a subset of responses from 15,791 young people—who were between ages 13 to 18 and attended middle or high school—to find out what factors led students to believe schools were affirming and what impact that made on their mental health. The Trevor Project decided to ask students about the five factors listed in the report based on organizationwide brainstorms and research-based evidence of what helps LGBTQ+ students at school, said Jonah DeChants, a senior research scientist at the organization.

LGBTQ+ middle and high school students who had at least one of those school-related protective factors were three times more likely to call their school LGBTQ-affirming, according to the report. Overall, 55 percent of the almost 16,000 middle and high school respondents said their school was affirming.

Knowing what protective factors make LGBTQ+ students’ experiences better is crucial for districts, especially now, when dozens of state laws and district-level policies aim to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ students to use affirming pronouns and restrooms of their choice, participate in school athletics, and have access to books that represent their community, DeChants said.

“Given these anti-LGBTQ pieces of legislation that we saw that passed last year, which are now starting to actually come into implementation in school districts across the country, it’s important to really highlight the fact that these protective factors are concrete actions that schools can take to help affirm their LGBTQ students and support their mental health and minimize their suicide risk,” he said.

The report does not specify whether access to protective factors varied by state or was lower in states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

Suicide risk and protective schools

When middle and high schoolers who responded to the survey did not have access to any protective factors, their risk of attempting or considering suicide in the past year was higher compared with those who did, the report says.

Seventeen percent of LGBTQ+ middle and high school students who did not have access to gender-neutral restrooms at their school reported attempting suicide in the past year, compared with 14 percent who had access.

LGBTQ+ students who were taught history that included LGBTQ+ stories and people reported lower rates of attempting suicide in the past year (14 percent), compared with those who were not taught about those topics (16 percent).

Nineteen percent of transgender and nonbinary secondary school students who reported that most or all their teachers respect their pronouns reported attempting suicide in the past year, compared with 22 percent of those who reported fewer teachers respected their pronouns.

Finally, 14 percent of LGBTQ+ students with access to a GSA or similar club on campus reported attempting suicide in the past year, compared with 18 percent who did not have that access.

Learning about LGBTQ+ experiences in sex education was not associated with significantly different rates of suicide attempts but was associated with lower rates of considering suicide in the past year, the report says.

Access to protective factors varies

Among all LGBTQ+ student respondents in middle school and high school, 57 percent attended a school with a GSA or similar club in the most recent school year, 29 percent had access to a gender-neutral restroom, 15 percent were taught sex education that included discussions about LGBTQ+ people and experiences, and 14 percent were taught history that included stories about the community.

More specifically, 25 percent of transgender and nonbinary middle and high school students said most or all teachers respected their pronouns. However, only 1 percent of students had access to all five protective factors.

High school students who responded to the survey had better access to all those factors compared with middle schoolers.

“That to me speaks to the need to provide some of these in middle school settings, because there’s clearly a need,” DeChants said.

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