June is a time to celebrate the diverse identities of sexual orientation and gender identity. Much has been accomplished in the last 10 to 15 years that makes the U.S. a safer place for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) people: LGB people can serve in the military, same-sex marriage is legal nationally, and transgender and nonbinary (people whose gender identity does not conform to a binary (e.g. man/woman) definition of gender; TNB) are more visible in the media and in society than ever before. However, the reality, especially for LGBTQ youth, is more complicated.
Let’s start with the bad news. LGBTQ youth have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and risk for suicide than their heterosexual and cisgender peers (being cisgender means that your internal sense of your gender aligns with the sex you were assigned at birth). The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, conducted a recent study of over 40,000 LGBTQ U.S. youth between the ages of 13-24 and found:
- 55% of LGBTQ youth reported symptoms of major depressive disorder in the past two weeks, including more than 2 in 3 TNB youth
- 68% of LGBTQ youth reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder in the past two weeks, including more than 3 in 4 TNB youth
- 48% of LGBTQ youth reported engaging in self-harm in the past twelve months, including over 60% of TNB youth
- 40% of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months, with more than half of TNB youth having seriously considered suicide (www.thetrevorproject.org/survey-2020) Note: the very recently released 2021 study showed slightly higher rates.
Why is this happening? You might be asking yourself: But I thought things were getting better for LGBTQ people? Hasn’t societal acceptance for LGBTQ people improved? Why are 4 out of every 10 LGBTQ youth thinking about suicide?
Researchers have found a number of factors that explain much of the high occurrence of these negative experiences for LGBTQ people, which are described in “Minority Stress Theory.” Minority stress consists of unique stressors that negatively impact LGBTQ people. These stressors range from external sources of stress (e.g., bullying, physical assault, discrimination and rejection by family and friends) to increasingly internal stressors, including anticipation of discrimination, internalizing negative messages about oneself, and hiding one’s LGBTQ identity. These stressors are embedded in our culture, are unavoidable, and are unique to LGBTQ people. The Trevor Project study found that:
- 40% of TNB youth reported being physically threatened or harmed in their lifetime due to their gender identity, and 30% of LGBTQ youth reported being physically threatened or harmed in their lifetime due to their sexual orientation.
- 29% of LGBTQ youth have experienced homelessness, been kicked out, or run away.
Youth who frequently encounter name-calling, discrimination, rejection and other external stressors, eventually begin to anticipate these stressors even before they actually occur (and sometimes even when they don’t). This anticipation becomes a more consistent and constant form of minority stress. When we are told something enough times, coupled with anticipating negative comments, we can internalize these messages. For instance, of those youth who attempted suicide, more than twice as many had experienced others trying to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, which is the ultimate rejection. There are many other studies that have produced very similar findings that minority stress decreases mental health.
Perhaps the most damaging form of minority stress occurs when an LGBTQ person feels that they need to hide their identity and/or the exploration of their identity—called being “in the closet.” There are multiple reasons why one might be in the closet, including safety concerns (such as those mentioned earlier). Being in the closet is most damaging because the individual cannot access a community of those who offer acceptance. This amounts to total distancing and isolation, which robs the person of any feeling of belonging as well as any assistance in building resilience.
Although this might seem bleak, there is good news: Minority Stress Theory also provides a path to resilience and improved mental health. It is essential that we create an environment that feels safe for LGBTQ youth to come out in the manner that feels best for them. What characterizes the stress factors is rejection and being cut off from family and friends, which ultimately deprive LGBTQ youth from feeling like they belong to any group or community that not only accepts them as they are, but affirms and even celebrates their identity. Helping LGBTQ youth find connection with family, friends or some other community can allow them to withstand the many stressors through building resilience. These include:
- Increased confidence that social support is available
- Increased self-esteem
- Acquiring problem solving skills derived from learning from supportive others
- Improved psychological functioning as members feel understood due to increased empathy
- Psychological empowerment stemming from increased resources, confidence, and esteem provided by a sense of community
Unlike stressors, these resilience factors have at their core a sense of belonging and affirmation—what psychologists refer to as “belongingness.”
It turns out that belongingness has tremendous implications for our mental health—and especially for youth. With it comes a wealth of benefits that can be measured in better mental health and increased resilience. The Trevor Project study noted above found that youth who had supportive relationships with friends, school, and support groups were significantly less likely to attempt suicide. The greatest benefit came from affirming families. Youth with supportive families were only about one third as likely to attempt suicide as youth without affirming families. This makes sense, because families are the people youth rely on most.
The bottom line: Belongingness and affirmation are essential to healthy LGBTQ youth.
The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH)…is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, interdisciplinary professional and educational organization devoted to transgender health.
PFLAG is the first and largest organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.Proper citation link for this blog post:
Hendricks, M. L. & Colbert, S. M. (June 9, 2021). For LGBTQ Youth, Affirmation and a Sense of Belonging Lead to Better Mental Health. (http://infoaboutkids.org/blog/for-lgbtq-youth-affirmation-and-a-sense-of-belonging-lead-to-better-mental-health)