Helping Our LGBTQ Youth Cope with Discrimination and Bullying
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the riots at the Stonewall Inn, which sparked the modern LGBTQ+ movement, we also celebrate unprecedented progress for LGBTQ+ rights. In 2011, President Barack Obama ended the military policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In 2015, the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on same-sex marriage in all 50 states, paving the way for nationwide marriage equality. The District of Columbia, in 2017, decreed that individuals could select gender-neutral pronouns for their drivers’ licenses. Despite these monumental legal and cultural shifts towards equality and acceptance, systemic and societal discrimination and hatred aimed at members of the LGBTQ+ community remains.
Discrimination is a genuine and present danger in the lives of LGBTQ+ youth. No federal laws guard against discrimination for LGBTQ+ persons, and more than half of all LGBTQ+ youth report having felt unsafe due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. Particularly worrisome and tragic is a wave of violence against transgender women of color. Discrimination and prejudice, particularly when faced by teens, cause emotional and mental distress to the point where 39 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously consider suicide. Let that number sink in. In effect, 2 out of every 5 LGBTQ+ teens think of killing themselves as a solution to the pain and torment that they feel.
What defines discrimination?
Discrimination is the unfair treatment of people based on race, religious faith, political affiliation, ability status, gender, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, or other factors rooted in identity. Why discrimination happens is a nuanced issue. In simple terms, people often reduce complex or emotionally-laden phenomena–like race or sexual orientation–into simple categories to better understand their surroundings and the world at large. Discrimination occurs when categorization and stereotyping lead to misunderstanding, fear, and mistrust. Bias and discrimination may be as obvious and abhorrent as people picketing LGBTQ+ funerals with hate-filled signs, or being openly rejecting of family members.
There are less obvious but equally insidious forms of seemingly casual discrimination that many members of the LGBTQ+ community face daily. For instance, the assumed norm is that a teenage girl will begin to develop feelings for boys her age. The assumption does not fit if she feels an attraction for other adolescent girls. Friends, teachers, and family — even well-meaning ones — will likely ask about which boy or male movie star she has a crush on. These kinds of questions signal that she — and her feelings — are not living up to expectations, as the inquiries may be tinged with a message that she is outside the norm, bad, or wrong.
Mental health outcomes
Whether discrimination is experienced due to race or ethnic identity, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender identity, it has been linked to negative psychological and physical outcomes. Those who experience discrimination are more likely to report high levels of chronic stress, which can lead to poor and sometimes life-threatening mental health outcomes. As a result, LGBTQ+ individuals are three times more likely to suffer from poor mental health.
LGBTQ+ youth are four times as likely to contemplate suicide, act on impulses to self-harm, or attempt suicide, compared to their straight or cisgender counterparts. Additionally, an estimated 20-30 percent of LGBTQ+ persons abuse substances, including alcohol and opioids, which is higher than other groups. According to The Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health, 71 percent of LGBTQ+ youth feel sad or hopeless for at least two weeks at a time in a year, indicative of depression.
To minimize ridicule, bullying, and violence, LGBTQ+ teens often keep their sexuality and gender identity hidden. Unfortunately, this causes a double-bind situation, as those who keep their sexual minority status quiet are at an increased risk of psychological distress. One reason this creates difficulty is that staying in the closet can prevent many LGBTQ+ teens from seeking out support from others who are welcoming and understanding of their experiences.
Helping LGBTQ+ teens find a caring and safe environment is critical for their health and wellbeing, whether that’s through connections to family or friends or people in the broader community. Finding safety and support is a vital step in helping them cope with bullying, prejudice, and discrimination. Online support is particularly appealing. When surveyed, 76 percent of LGBTQ+ youth suggested that they would reach out for help via text or chat in a crisis if the option was presented to them. They also reported that having a safe space to network and seek help was valuable and helpful. Similarly, 52 percent of LGBTQ+ youth say that their online community is a source of comfort and support.
Depending on your role, there are a variety of ways you can help LGBTQ+ youth. If you’re an educator or actively involved in education, working with school officials to create safe spaces for students is a good start. If you’re a parent, make it clear to your child (or friends of your child that might be an LGBTQ+ teen) that you love them and are available should they need help. Educate yourself on the LGBTQ+ community and the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation. Using the correct language will be much appreciated by the LGBTQ+ youth in your life. If you’re confused by anything, kindly ask them for clarification or do some research. Most importantly, ask them how you can help and then listen.
For LGBTQ+ youth who are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, or for those who are feeling lonely, scared, and confused, seeking help through therapy is apt to be a daunting task. Seeking out and finding a good therapist is a hard enough task for an adult, so it can also be extra challenging for a teenager. Helping them locate therapists who specialize in working with LGBTQ+ teens would be a big help. If you’re in a position to offer guidance, let them know that a therapist’s office should feel safe, inviting, positive, and all-affirming. The right LGBTQ+ therapist will be finely attuned to the social rejection, verbal and physical bullying, and chronic stress associated with being an LGBTQ+ teenager and young adult.
LGBTQ+ individuals can experience chronic levels of stress associated with bullying and discrimination. This stress can cause a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and substance abuse. Though statistics suggest that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to struggle with depressive symptoms and are more susceptible to feelings of hopelessness, research consistently shows that increasing social support, promoting inclusive policies, and providing access to tools and resources facilitates resilience and allows our LGBTQ+ teens and young adults to thrive. While we may not be able to eradicate discrimination, ensuring that our LGBTQ+ youth have a safe space to discuss their feelings and share their struggles can lead to increased self-acceptance and decreased experiences of alienation and loneliness, which goes a long way in helping them to overcome many obstacles that they may face.