Mental Health within the LGBTQ+ Youth Community: From Class Project to Community Engagement
By Jaya Adkins
Outreach and Engagement Communications Intern
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts.* While this disparity may seem alarming, it’s actually quite common place. But why?
Diana Maier and Ashley Hill wondered the same thing. As master’s students in Ohio State’s College of Social Work, both were troubled by these statistics. A project for their Social and Economic Justice class required students to research and develop an advocacy plan for any current social justice issue. Maier and Hill decided to focus their project on LGBTQ+ mental health in Columbus.
Maier and Hill’s research consisted of face-to-face interviews and online literature searches to find statistics on LGBTQ+ youth. To tailor their study to Central Ohio, Maier met with Evan Mackenzie, the trans outreach coordinator at Kaleidoscope Youth Center. Kaleidoscope’s mission is to support LGBTQ+ youth and allies. The center serves as a safe space for LGBTQ+ youth, allies, and families, hosting daily activities ranging from “open mic nights” to intimate group discussions on gender identity, LGBTQ+ youth of color, expression and more.
So, where is the issue? Kaleidoscope is the only LGBTQ+ youth center in Ohio.
“This shows the lack of access to care. Teens will often drive two to three hours just to visit Kaleidoscope and be around other people like them. They want to feel supported and safe,” explained Maier. “Unfortunately, they also often need parental approval to use these resources.”
In a nutshell, the issues faced by LGBTQ+ youth are complex and multilayered because the barriers to receive care are usually constructed by those youth rely on the most—their families.
Hill said one study found that 57% of transgender youth who were rejected by their families attempted suicide, compared to 31% who had strong family relationships.
“High rates of attempted suicide among LGBTQ+ youth is due, in large part, to a lack of family support and community resources. A majority of the community resources available to LGBTQ+ youth are often not available to teens that don’t have supportive families. That means they don’t have access to mental health services or organizations like Kaleidoscope to offer support. Transgender youth won’t have access to a medical doctor,” said Hill.
Of course, the lack of family support is only a fraction of the issue. Other factors include the high stigma and discrimination surrounding both mental illness and the LGBTQ+ community.
Hill said research has shown that 34% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have experienced bullying, with 59% of this demographic experiencing sexual violence, domestic violence, and rape. This number only skyrockets with transgender youth—78% have experienced harassment, 35% physical assault, and 12% sexual violence.**
“Lots of kids are fearful of coming out for fear of being bullied, discriminated against, or ostracized at school,” said Maier.
Hill noted the lack of statistical data available for LGBTQ+ youth mental health.
“There really isn’t a lot of data available for this demographic, which speaks volumes for the visibility that this community has,” explained Hill. “The CDC only began collecting data for LGBTQ individuals in 2015—and that’s the most recent data we have.”
In an effort to raise awareness of this issue, Maier and Hill presented their findings at the 2018 Community Engagement Conference at Ohio State University. The goal of this year’s conference was to advance health and wellness efforts through community partnerships.
“Doing the conference was about raising awareness and sharing the knowledge we had learned to engage the community and find ways for them to get involved,” said Hill.
According to Maier and Hill, the first step in getting involved is to educate yourself on the issues surrounding the LGBTQ+ community and confront biases when you see it. You can also volunteer at organizations, like Kaleidoscope, that are focused on supporting LGBTQ+ individuals and allies.
“Educating yourself is key to this initiative because in doing so you can educate others, like a trickle effect. Be more culturally aware and practice cultural humility, but know that it’s also okay to not know everything. Above all, be compassionate and stay curious,” said Hill.
*(n.d.). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health. Retrieved from https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender-health
** (2017, June 21). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm
The Ohio State University Student Resources