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Student Well-Being

Political Anger Directed at LGBTQ+ Youth Is Stressing Them Out. How Schools Can Help

By Arianna Prothero — May 02, 2023 4 min read
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The mental health of LGBTQ+ teens and young adults continues to suffer as political debates over banning discussion of LGBTQ+ issues in schools add more stress, concludes a new survey by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention organization.

The Trevor Project’s fifth annual survey of LGBTQ+ teens and young adults includes responses from 28,000 13- to 24-year-olds from across the country, and it highlights how much more vulnerable they are to suicide as well as the important role schools can play in supporting their mental health.

“According to our research, when LGBTQ young people have access to affirming homes and schools, they report lower rates of attempting suicide, and that’s very, very important,” said Ronita Nath, the vice president of research for The Trevor Project. Yet, she said, “a majority of LGBTQ young people reported being verbally harassed at school, because people thought they were LGBTQ.”

Here are some key findings from the survey:

  • 67 percent of LGBTQ+ teens and young adults said they had recently felt symptoms of anxiety;
  • 54 percent reported feeling symptoms of depression;
  • More than half who said they wanted mental health care were not able to get services;
  • 41 percent said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year;
  • 20 percent of transgender and nonbinary teens and young adults surveyed reported that they had attempted suicide in the past year, compared with 10 percent of cisgender LGBTQ+ young people.

LGBTQ+ young people from certain racial and ethnic groups were more likely to report having attempted suicide. Native/Indigenous, Middle Eastern/North African, Black, Latinx, and multiracial youth were all more likely to say they had attempted suicide, compared with their peers who are white or Asian.

These overall findings echo data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Survey in February. That survey, taken in 2021, found that a significantly higher proportion of high school students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning teens reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness compared with their heterosexual peers—69 percent versus 36 percent.

According to The Trevor Project survey, which was fielded from September through December of 2022, nearly two-thirds of teens and young adults said that hearing about banning people from discussing LGBTQ+ issues at school made their mental health a lot worse.

“Anti-LGBTQ bills are at an all-time high this year, and most of which specifically target transgender and nonbinary young people,” said Nath. “We definitely know that LGBTQ young people are listening to the national rhetoric and the debates and dialogues regarding their rights, and this is having an impact on them—positively if it supports their rights and negatively if it doesn’t.”

Schools can be a source of anxiety

More than half of LGBTQ+ youth responding to The Trevor Project survey who are enrolled in school said they had been verbally harassed while at school because other students thought they were LGBTQ+, and a quarter said they have been disciplined for fighting back against bullies. Thirty-two percent said schools did not allow them to dress in a way that fits their gender identity.

Thirty-seven percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said they did not have a gender-neutral bathroom at their schools.

Overall, LGBTQ+ teens and young adults from the South and Midwest generally reported higher rates of victimization and suicide risk compared with their peers in the Northeast and West.

A separate survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45 percent of transgender and nonbinary adults said that they felt unsafe in school growing up. Transgender adults were more likely to say they felt unsafe in school than they did in church, their home, or participating in youth sports or in activities such as summer camp or Scouts.

These findings dovetail with the CDC data which found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and questioning students reported lower levels of school connectedness than their heterosexual peers.

According to the CDC report, that underscores the potential benefits of Gender and Sexualities Alliances, which promote school connectedness as well as safe spaces for students, inclusivity training for staff, and anti-harassment policies that are enforced.

Finding support in online communities

It’s worth noting that many LGBTQ+ teens and young adults do seem to find meaningful support in online spaces: 68 percent of LGBTQ+ teens and young adults and 70 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said they had access to affirming spaces online.

Affirming spaces where—for example—transgender and nonbinary young people’s preferred pronouns are used makes a big difference, Nath emphasized.

“We think of pronouns as maybe not being an important thing, especially considering the national rhetoric, but it is,” she said. “We know that those who did have folks around who care about them using the pronouns that they wanted—that impacted their mental health and suicidality.”

When transgender and nonbinary youth had access to gender-neutral bathrooms at school, they also reported lower rates of attempting suicide, the survey found.

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