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LGBTQ Youth Mental Health

According to the Trevor Project, 42% of LGBTQ youth considered attempting suicide in the past year and 70% stated their mental health was “poor”.

“LGBTQ youth have an elevated risk of mental health problems”, says Dr. Christopher Drescher, psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at Augusta University.

Factors that contribute to mental health challenges

“There are a lot of different factors that can play a role in terms of the context that that person is growing up in. We can start from the closer in proximity and then work our way out to think about things that might affect them.

The most important thing is the family and the parental reactions when they come out as part of the LGBTQ community. Parental acceptance and affirmation is probably the single most important factor when it comes to LGBTQ youths’ mental health. If that is positive that can be a protective factor that increases resilience. If there is a really negative reaction or even abusive reaction, it can predict more problematic responses in terms of mental health.”

School is another key context for LGBTQ youth. “Youth that don’t feel safe at their schools are at higher risk for problems. If they feel that they are bullied or discriminated against by other students and school staff, which does happen, this is another important risk factor. However, just having a single staff member that they feel like they can go to and stands up for them can increase their resilience a lot. Again, there is risk there but also opportunities for resilience if it is a supportive environment.”

Another factor is taking a closer look at policies implemented by the government. “For example, there is some research that just having an anti-bullying policy for a school system that is explicit and says no bullying based on gender identity and sexual orientation increases the mental health of LGBTQ students in that school system. We have seen policy impacts on things like when same sex marriage was legalized it had a positive impact on people’s mental health. Decisions made from the home to national policy level can affect LGBTQ youths’ mental health.”

LGBTQ youth and substance abuse

LGBTQ youth are more likely to engage in substance abuse depending on some of the factors mentioned above.  “If there is more discrimination, or if they are not being welcomed in their own home or even being pushed out of their home, then they are more likely to engage in substance use or affiliate with peers that would put them at risk to start using if they don’t have a safe home base.

There could be some bi-directional effects as well. We know that some adolescents are depressed in general and we can’t always point to a specific environmental factor that caused that. If they are already suffering from depression then that puts them at risk to have more problems and more severe problems if they are facing discrimination.”

Finding a safe space

There are some schools that have groups specifically identified as safe spaces. “For example, there are Gay Straight Alliances (GSA). Sometimes they already exist and sometimes a youth might decide to start one with a faculty sponsor. There is a lot of research that those types of groups have a positive impact on youth’s lives.

There have been different community groups that have started outside of schools to support LGBTQ youth. I think with COVID-19 it’s been harder to continue some of those. Those are additional options and usually those are advertised around local restaurants and coffee shops. There are also resources for parents. For example there is the PFLAG Aiken group, which is a group more for families and parents. As a parent, you may be struggling with providing support and you may need your own support. This can also connect you with more resources for your child.

There are a few different faith groups in the Augusta area that are very open to the LGBTQ community. There is the Metropolitan Community Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta and the Aiken Unitarian Universalist Church. Those can also be positive spaces to interact with welcoming adults from all different types of backgrounds and interact with other youth that would be affirming. Finding some of those communities is important especially if a child is not feeling included in their school system or other areas of their life after they come out as LGBTQ.”

Helpful resources

Dr. Drescher recommends using the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to preventing suicide to LGBTQ youth. The Trevor Project is a good resource and a great place to get started if you are not sure what is available locally.

“Being a part of the LGBTQ community is not a mental illness. It doesn’t mean that someone needs to go into therapy. In fact, if it is a therapist trying to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity that can be very harmful. If your child is having a mental health problem, it is appropriate to get them professional services like counseling or psychiatric medications. There is some increased suicide risk especially during adolescents. It is important to get professional help and not feel like you have to manage everything on your own if you are a parent seeing your child struggling.

Coming out of COVID there was definitely a lot of increases in stress, anxiety and depression for adolescents. This is a time for parents to be aware of that. I think it’s important for youth to have a connection to a broader community. There are a lot of events that are more open to all ages. For example the Augusta Pride festivities. This is a place where families can go together and show their support.”

Tips for parents of LGBTQ youth

Dr. Drescher offers some insight on how parents can be more affirming for their child in the LGBTQ community.

“For parents not sure how to receive their child who identifies as a part of this community, it starts before your child comes out. For example, how do you react to a news story or a character on TV that’s gay or lesbian or bi-sexual? If you are saying gross or changing the channel or saying there is something wrong with them, then your child is going to feel uncomfortable coming out. They are going to be afraid of your response. It is challenging to begin with to come out, but especially if a parent has been expressing explicit negative attitudes or even regularly exposing them to communities where those attitudes are expressed (religious communities that have a strong anti-LGBTQ message or even extended family). The way you respond as a parent to those different types of situations is really important to whether or not your child will feel comfortable coming out at a later date.

I think that the biggest thing for parents is to just open the doors for those types of conversations. You never want to force a conversation because someone might not be ready or you might miss perceive something. You may think one thing is going on and then it is something else. As a parent you could say “If you are ever having feelings about who you are attracted to or who you are as a person I want you to know you can always talk to me about this. This is an open door.” This helps normalize those conversations, lowers the barrier to your child bringing it up, and helps make it more possible to have those conversations.

As a parent, you may have to do some work and discover some of your own biases and things that are awkward or uncomfortable for you. If you are extremely uncomfortable with this conversation, it is going to show and your child is going to pick up on those messages. You may have to do some reading or discussions with other adults to make yourself feel more comfortable and confident coming into these topics.

For example, LGBTQ youth typically get a lot less relevant sexual education than heterosexual and cisgender youth. This is because in many school settings it is not covered at all or only covered in a negative way. A lot of times LGBTQ youth sort of tune out and say this doesn’t really apply to me and that’s not really true. There are still important parts of sexual education for everyone. We also find that parents are less likely to talk with LGBTQ children about sexual health topics. That’s really unfortunate because they are not getting it at school and then they aren’t getting it at home. If you have a child that identifies as part of that community then you have a responsibility to educate yourself some so that you can be the kind of support you want to be.

A lot of parents do struggle with acceptance around these things, not all because there are a lot of wonderfully supportive parents too. If in the immediate aftermath of your child coming out, you aren’t sure how you feel about it or maybe this is something that you never wanted to be true, it is important to remind yourself of the core values you really want for your child. Often that boils down to, I want them to be successful, independent and happy.

If you remind yourself of these things it can be a really helpful guide even if you are not ready to be completely affirming initially. This can help you avoid doing something that causes problems for your child in terms of a really negative response. It helps you refocus on this and not doing something that may hurt your child or get in the way of their happiness and success in the long run. It’s important to keep this in mind so you are careful of how you respond to this information.”

Wondering what to do now? Turn to the Augusta University Child and Adolescent Program. From bipolar disorders to depression and beyond, our experts provide compassionate mental health services for struggling teenagers.

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.