LGBTQ Young People at Greater Risk of Mental Health Problems During Pandemic

Approximately one in three high school students experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new data.

And the prevalence of poor mental health was highest among gay, lesbian or bisexual students, according to new CDC data examining how high school students have been affected by the pandemic. On top of COVID-related stressors, an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country are also taking a toll on young people’s mental health.

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According to the newly released data, 26.3% of gay, lesbian or bisexual students attempted suicide between Jan. and June 2021. For heterosexual students, the number was 5.2% and other or questioning students at 16.5%.

Lola Wang, a therapist and owner of Fig Tree Counseling, said her conversations with young queer people reflect these statistics. Being at home might not be the safest environment for them in a way school is, she said.

“For a lot of youth, the school might be a safe environment for them, because they could have their friends and supportive teachers, while their family environment does not provide the equal amount of safety,” Wang said.

Social isolation is another stressor, said Iggy Ladden, the founder and director of the Chicago Therapy Collective.

“Social development is so key for our identity development as youth, and so to not have those opportunities to really be connecting with others and really finding oneself more, I think that is having a unique toll on LGBTQ folks,” Ladden said.

In addition, there’s been an onslaught of anti-transgender and anti-gay legislation across the country. Just last week, Alabama’s governor signed legislation that threatens doctors and nurses with up to 10 years in prison for providing gender affirming care to young people.

And the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida that seeks to prohibits school from using curriculum or discussing topics of gender identity or sexual orientation has influenced other states to consider legislation that mimics the law.

Transgender and gay youth have “become a punching bag,” Ladden said.

The legislation creates barriers for transgender people to access care, said Wang. On top of the mental health fragility from the pandemic, there’s now an uncertainty and fear of the future for transgender people, she added.

“A lot of our clients worry constantly what will happen next — what else can be taken away?” Wang said. “And unfortunately, we don’t have an answer for that. A lot of the time, we just need to sit with them and explore what are some of the things that we can actually control because there’s just a lot of things that are outside us.”

For parents wanting to discuss these issues with their kids, Ladden said first and foremost, to just be sure to talk about it and to not shy away. It’s important for parents to make it clear that they’re open, available and interested to talk about it.

“They can feel less alone and more seen just by the act of centering it in a conversation and brining it up and making sure that your kid knows that this is terrible and unacceptable,” Ladden said.

It’s also important to connect kids to resources and the care they need, said Wang.

“Sometimes when they’re experiencing stress, it might not look the same as an adult who is experiencing the same issues,” Wang said. “So it’s important for parents to connect them with a mental health provider who understands how it’s like to go through all that stuff as a queer youth.”

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).

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