How Acceptance at Home Impacted LGBTQ Youth Health During the Pandemic

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Every day during the pandemic, the Duron family, in lockdown together in Orange County, California, stuck to a routine: breakfast, a session of online learning and work, lunchtime and evening walks, dinner, and in their spare time, doing “more crafts than I ever thought possible,” recounted Lori Duron.

The Durons have two children. And one of them, CJ, identifies as gender-creative and is a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

While Lori and her husband, Matt, take steps to create a safe and welcoming home for both their kids, they make sure to let CJ know that he can dress how he wants at home — be it twirling in a skirt or lounging in his favorite nightgown.

During the pandemic, they’ve also nurtured his creativity by fostering passions like nail art and interior design. And there’s always plenty of art supplies on hand for imaginative expression.

“The world (especially school) isn’t always kind to him. That’s why we’ve always strived to make home feel safe, happy, and peaceful,” said Lori, who recounted part of her family’s story in a children’s book, “Raising My Rainbow.”

“For a lot of kids like CJ, home is where they have to deal with their first bullies. We knew that that absolutely would not be the case for CJ. We’d make sure of it,” she said.

The importance of creating a safe space is doubly important for Lori.

“My brother is gay, and home didn’t feel safe for him because of it,” she shared. “If the pandemic had happened when he was young, I can only imagine how his mental health would have suffered.”

LGBTQ+ youth are facing unique challenges to their mental health during the pandemic

The Durons are in the minority in the United States: Only 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ young people have an affirming home, according to an alarming new study from The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading organization focused on suicide prevention among members of this demographic.

The group’s third annual National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health surveyed nearly 35,000 LGBTQ+ young people, ages 13 to 24, from October to December 2020. The survey’s topics included suicide risk, discrimination, food insecurity, conversion therapy, disparities in mental healthcare, and the impact of the pandemic — which has forced many LGBTQ+ young people to shelter in place with families who may not be affirming.

In fact, according to the report, more than 80 percent of LGBTQ+ youth say the pandemic has added stress to their living situation.

“We’ve heard from young people who have been stuck in unsupportive living environments, surrounded by family or others who do not support their LGBTQ identity,” said Dr. Tia Dole, the chief clinical operations officer for The Trevor Project.

“Some young people have had to go back into the closet or hide their identity entirely to maintain safety,” Dole explained. “Others have expressed wanting therapy or mental health support but being unable to afford it because of the financial stress the pandemic has placed on their family. And while the world is opening back up for many Americans, we cannot forget that so many LGBTQ youth did not have access to welcoming communities and systems of support even before the pandemic.”

In and out of lockdown, LGBTQ+ youth are more at risk for depression and suicide than their heterosexual peers; 42 percent have seriously considered a suicide attempt, the report noted.

This number is even higher for transgender and nonbinary youth: More than half have had suicidal thoughts.

“The past year has been really difficult for so many of us, but we also know that LGBTQ youth in particular are facing unique challenges,” said Dr. Amy Green, the vice president of research for The Trevor Project and the licensed clinical psychologist who oversaw the survey.

“There’s not something inherent to being LGBTQ that causes these greater needs of mental health challenges and suicide risk,” emphasized Green, who pointed to outside stressors like discrimination and stigma as contributing factors.

Shining a bright light on intersectional disparities and needs of LGBTQ+ youth

While statistics related to suicide have not varied dramatically since the survey’s inception, this year’s survey contains a more diverse pool of respondents: 45 percent are LGBTQ+ young people of color and 38 percent are transgender or nonbinary.

For the first time, the findings are segmented by each demographic, shining a light on intersectional disparities and needs. And there are major disparities between white LGBTQ+ young people and youth of color.

For example, 12 percent of white LGBTQ+ youth reported a suicide attempt. But those figures are much higher for Indigenous (31 percent), Black (21 percent), multiracial (21 percent), and Latinx (18 percent) LGBTQ+ young people.

“The data speaks to the wide variety of experiences and identities held by LGBTQ youth across the country, and emphasizes the need for comprehensive, intersectional policy solutions to confront systemic barriers and end suicide,” said Amit Paley, The Trevor Project’s CEO and executive director, in a statement.

For Green, one of the most “devastating” findings from the survey was the significant racial disparities. LGBTQ+ youth of color are subject to “multiple forms of discrimination” that augment suicide risk, she said.

“As a clinician… I start to worry in terms of the well-being of our youth, and that we’re really not doing enough and not paying enough attention to the impact of things like systemic racism, implicit bias, and all of the experiences that youth of color are having in this country,” she said.

“If you look at what’s happening with white youth, they’re either staying the same or they’re getting better,” she added of these statistical disparities. “And so, it really is a shifting in the public health problems that our nation’s been facing for a long time.”

Politics profoundly impacted LGBTQ+ mental health during the pandemic

Politics also play a significant role in the mental well-being of LGBTQ+ young people. This year, an unprecedented number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, reports the Human Rights Campaign.

Transgender youth have been a particular target, with conservative politicians seeking (and, in the case of Arkansas, succeeding) to block access to gender affirming care and sports teams.

In addition to adding hurdles to healthcare and support group access, this legislation has spawned culture-war vitriol in the media and public discourse.

This animus negatively impacted the mental health of 94 percent of the LGBTQ+ youth surveyed in The Trevor Project report. (As a point of comparison, the vast majority, 70 percent, indicated experiencing “poor” mental health for most or all of the pandemic.)

Green said LGBTQ+ youth don’t even need to be living in a state with anti-LGBTQ+ bills to be affected.

“Hearing about what’s happening across the country in other states can be really harmful and scary,” said Green, who offered strong words for the lawmakers pushing this legislation.

“There should be no reason to have any legislation related to healthcare… Our policy should be about protecting and following the science,” Green said. “There is no science that shows that taking away rights from folks and legislating their ability to live their lives would be healthy for those individuals.”

Additionally, ongoing police violence against Black people and a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes have heaped more stress on LGBTQ+ youth of color, many of whom have endured discrimination firsthand.

In the last year, 67 percent of Black LGBTQ+ youth and 60 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) LGBTQ+ youth experienced race- or ethnicity-based discrimination, according to The Trevor Project report.

Preventing discrimination is key to the fight against suicide. LGBTQ+ youth of color who have experienced three types of discrimination attempted suicide at a higher rate (36 percent). But for those who haven’t experienced discrimination related to their identities, that number plummets to 7 percent, according to the report.

Another solution to addressing the mental health needs of LGBTQ+ young people is expanding their access to care. But at present, nearly half don’t have this access.

A major reason is fear. Many are scared they won’t find a doctor who will understand and respect their LGBTQ+ identity.

This fear is often justified. Green noted it was “all too common” for a healthcare professional to further discriminate and do harm.

A qualified counselor should provide “validation, reflection, and listening and empathy” to help LGBTQ+ young people “accept themselves and to shed some of that shame and stigma that they may [have] experienced,” Green said.

LGBTQ+ youth of color are subject to multiple forms of discrimination that augment suicide risk. Getty Images

Suicide rates drop dramatically for LGBTQ+ youth who feel supported by friends and family

There are other ways to help lower the suicide rate of LGBTQ+ young people. For trans and nonbinary youth, respecting pronouns — and legally allowing them to use their pronouns and names on documentation — reduces their risk.

Moreover, an earlier report from The Trevor Project showed that just one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt by 40 percent. This means that an aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher, or coach can make an immense difference simply by expressing support for an LGBTQ+ young person.

The more support, the better. Don’t “assume that they’ve heard it in many other places before, because you may end up being the one person who said it just at the right time… [to] reduce the risk of attempting suicide,” Green said.

The media also has a role to play. Seeing the pride of the LGBTQ+ community, be it through a news article, a TikTok video, or simply a rainbow flag, can help LGBTQ+ youth feel accepted.

Green called these displays of representation “glimmers of hope” and “a really important part of the story in terms of why visibility is so important.”

In another glimmer of hope, Dole pointed to the “deep sense of resiliency” that allows young people to find “strength and joy” in a variety of sources, such as “chosen family, art and creative expression, their pets, representation in media, learning about LGBTQ history, and having supportive and acceptive friends.”

Schools also play a vital role in the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people, and they have a responsibility to create spaces that educate and affirm.

“According to our new national survey, LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide,” Dole said. “That’s why we must all do our part in creating LGBTQ-affirming spaces where young people can not only survive, but thrive.”

“However,” Dole added, “while nearly 7 in 10 LGBTQ youth had access to affirming online spaces, only half reported that their school was LGBTQ affirming, and only 1 in 3 found their home to be LGBTQ affirming. So, we have a whole lot of work to do to raise awareness and foster acceptance of LGBTQ youth.”

But ultimately, parents are “one of the most powerful” factors in a child’s mental health, said Green. “When parents are accepting is when we see some of the most positive aspects for their LGBTQ youth,” she said.

“They don’t have to know everything there is to know to support their child,” Green stressed. “They have to know how to listen. They have to know how to feel empathy. And they have to learn how to let their child know that their love is unconditional.”

This was a lesson learned by Lori, who hasn’t always been as enlightened on LGBTQ+ issues.

“My biggest parenting mistake was going through phases during which I’d try to get CJ to be more of a boy,” she shared. “I’d hide his dolls thinking that if he couldn’t find dolls, he wouldn’t like them. I had him tested for colorblindness to see if that’s why he gravitated to pink instead of blue. I enrolled him in baseball instead of ballet.”

“I thought his gender expression was a problem I could solve,” she said. “I was uneducated about gender identity and gender expression. I educated myself about gender and statistics for kids like CJ. I promised to be the kind of parent he needs, not try to make him the kind of boy society expected.”

And for CJ, his parents’ efforts made all the difference.

“They always love me and they are proud of me,” he said. “I also know that if people are mean to me or bully me, my parents are always there for me. My parents will listen to me talk about being bullied, they will comfort me, they will help me stand up for myself or they will stand up for me. They also make sure that I know my rights.”

Parents and other would-be mentors can find educational resources at The Trevor Project, PFLAG, Gender Spectrum, and in the parenting books by psychologist Diane Ehrensaft (whom Lori recommends).

The Trevor Project also offers a number of volunteer opportunities for adults, such as its 24/7 TrevorLifeline (866-488-7386) and TrevorChat and TrevorText programs, which offer young people who are feeling suicidal an avenue to talk.

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