May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a recent nationwide survey of the LGBTQ community revealed concerning numbers.
For the past five years, the Trevor Project’s annual survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People has asked LGBTQ youth, ages 13 to 24, from across the United States about their experiences in the past year. This year’s results from more than 28,000 respondents raise concerns about child and student mental health.
Of those surveyed, 41 percent seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year — and young people who are transgender, nonbinary, and/or people of color reported higher rates than their peers.
Jeneice Shaw, a licensed psychologist and assistance and training director at the Carruth Center for Counseling and Psychological Services at West Virginia University (WVU), said that LGBTQ youth are dealing with additional stressors from a young age.
“Often what you see is that queer students, or queer folks in general, have a lot of extra added stress, because their identities are politicized,” Shaw said. “Especially young queer folks have more to manage in a lot of ways, so they have higher levels of anxiety, higher levels of depression, higher levels of attempted suicide than the cisgender or heterosexual population.”
Shaw said one benefit she’s seen is that younger generations are more open to conversations about mental health, but stigma still persists. One of the survey’s findings was that even though 81 percent of respondents wanted mental health care, only 44 percent were able to access it.
Shaw recognizes that many of the issues impacting LGBTQ people are systemic, and can’t be resolved in a therapy session. But the survey also found that small changes like living and going to school in gender-affirming environments significantly reduced the risk of suicide.
“Broadly, respecting people’s wishes and decisions like having gender neutral bathrooms in schools and spaces that are easily accessible. Not politicizing the health care for trans and non-binary folks, which we see happening a lot,” Shaw said. “I just think there’s a lot of bigger societal pieces that are threatening the existence of trans and non-binary folks, of like, ‘You don’t exist,’ kind of thing, like, ‘This isn’t real.’ And that’s not true.”
Ash Orr works as a press relations manager for a national LGBTQ nonprofit. Locally, he is a board member for Project Rainbow, an organization working to provide housing support for displaced LGBTQ members. He said that housing instability can exacerbate mental health issues.
“Here in West Virginia, we have the highest amount of trans individuals per capita of anywhere else in the country. And housing is already such a sensitive issue for the LGBTQ community, even if you take away the ongoing attacks that are happening to our community,” he said. “Housing is something that is stressful to navigate as a queer, trans person. You have to think about, ‘Is this landlord safe? Are the individuals that I may be neighbors to, are they safe? Will this be a place that I can come out to as being queer or trans while living here?’”
The Trevor Project’s survey found that less than half of LGBTQ youth — 40 percent — found their home to be LGBTQ-affirming. The survey also found that transgender people are much more likely to consider suicide. More than half of all trans men surveyed considered suicide in the past year, double the rate of cis men surveyed — cis meaning identifying with their assigned gender at birth.
“We do see a lot of younger individuals, especially now with everything going on in our state and in Appalachia, seeking housing assistance and discrimination assistance,” he said. “These issues are systemic, but they also intersect with one another, and that’s why we really do need a whole system overhaul when it comes to how we are looking at mental health access, mental health providers and services, as well as unsheltered services and resources.”
Megan Gandy, an associate professor and Behavioral Social Work program director at WVU, said that for things to improve for LGBTQ youth, it will take everyone working together.
“The thing that really struck me the most was just the fact that it takes a community for LGBTQ+ folks and kids to be well,” she said. “Legislation matters, school matters, families matter, faith communities matter. All of these things matter to make youth mental health better.”
Gandy said she’s already seeing the impact of restrictive laws, such as House Bill 2007, which the West Virginia Legislature made law earlier this year and significantly limits access to gender-affirming care for anyone under the age of 18.
“I’ve seen literal families packing up and moving. It’s not just with kids, even though that law was for kids, it’s also with adults, because they’re fearful about coming out,” Gandy said. “They’re fearful about the repercussions that they might face. They’re also trying to plan for the inevitable with what next year’s legislation might cut, they might limit adult access to gender affirming care.”
For the first time this year, The Trevor Project survey asked respondents to describe a world where all LGBTQ people are accepted. Key phrases that popped up repeatedly included things like, “people just exist,” and “basic human rights.”
Gandy said she does see a path forward for those who want to support LGBTQ children and youth.
“Youth need caring, supportive adults. It doesn’t matter if they’re heterosexual and cisgender or if they’re LGBTQ+, they just need caring and supportive adults and LGBTQ youth need adults to support them in their sexual orientation, their gender identity,” she said. “That’s something that is relatively easy to do for adults, but somehow they still find it difficult to do because of their own biases and their own belief systems that they haven’t updated with new information.”
According to Gandy, there is a particularly easy action anyone can take to show their support of LGBTQ youth.
“One of the simplest ways that we can show that LGBTQ+ youth matter is visibility because it is, it can be an invisible minority status,” she said. “We can show visibility, visible support through rainbow flags, the pride progress flag, the trans flag — those really do actually mean a lot when kids see that and it just automatically communicates to them that you’re a safe person.”