Health and Wellness

LGBTQ youth are scared to go back to school. Here’s what schools can do.

School bullying
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New research from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ suicide prevention organization, has revealed that LGBTQ youth are experiencing outsized anxiety about returning to school this year.

A spokesperson for the organization told LGBTQ Nation that in conversations with youth surrounding school, The Trevor Project’s crisis services has seen an increase in words like “fear,” “anxiety,” “isolation,” “lonely,” and “depression.”

Related: Half of trans youth have contemplated suicide after a year of nonstop Republican attacks

Between last school year and this one, there has also been a 20% overall increase in conversations about mental health and school. Youth have also shown a 2.4 times increase in discussing fears of failing and falling behind.

Between the pandemic and the barrage of anti-LGBTQ laws being passed in state legislatures, this increased anxiety is no surprise.  And while some of the circumstances causing mental health challenges for LGBTQ youth may be out of a school’s control, an August research brief from the Trevor Project demonstrates that there are clear actions schools can take to be safer and more affirming.

In fact, affirming schools can be lifesaving for LGBTQ youth. Using data from a 2020 survey of over 34,000 LGBTQ youth, the Trevor Project reported that those who attended a school that affirmed their identity were 40% less likely to attempt suicide over the past year.

But schools have a long way to go, as the survey also found that 59% of LGBTQ middle and high school students felt unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation, 42% due to their gender expression, and 37% due to their gender.

One thing schools can do, the brief stated, is provide suicide prevention training to both teachers and students. Doing so equips those involved to support both themselves and others. The brief reported that LGBTQ students who undergo suicide prevention training in school had a 23% less chance of attempting suicide over the past year.

To help schools be successful, the Trevor Project offers a comprehensive “Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention,” developed with The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The American School Counselor Association, and The National Association of School Psychologists.

Another thing schools must do, the organization says, is teach positive content about LGBTQ people. Only 28% of middle and high school students reported learning about LGBTQ people or issues in school, yet LGBTQ youth who did learn about these issues were 23% less likely to attempt suicide in the past year.

As the place where young people spend the majority of their time, schools have a responsibility to make themselves positive places for LGBTQ youth. The brief did acknowledge, however, that some schools, especially in the South, are up against strict laws that prevent them from affirming their LGBTQ students.

For example, according to Equality Texas, Texas is one of a handful of Southern states with what is known as a “No Promo Homo” law, which bans schools from teaching LGBTQ issues in schools.

Texas law states schools must teach that “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense.” Other “No Promo Homo” laws exist in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

In April, Alabama removed its “No Promo Homo” law, but a month later, lawmakers introduced a bill that would have banned trans youth from accessing gender-affirming health care – including talk therapy – and require teachers to out children who may be trans to their parents. The bill didn’t make it to a vote in the House before the session ended.

And in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Florida, and West Virginia, anti-trans sports bans have been enacted that prevent trans students from playing sports on teams that align with their gender.

Overall, 2021 has been a record year for anti-LGBTQ legislation. Many bills specifically target LGBTQ youth, which has no doubt contributed to one of the most troubling statistics from the Trevor Project survey, that 42 percent of respondents  had seriously contemplated suicide in the past year.

In short, schools must take action to help their LGBTQ students feel safe and respected. Doing so could save their lives.

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