About one in three high school students experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, new data shows.
And the prevalence of poor mental health was highest among gay, lesbian or bisexual college students, according to new data from the CDC examining how high school students have been impacted by the pandemic. In addition to COVID-related stressors, an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country is also impacting the mental health of young people.
According to recently released data, 26.3% of gay, lesbian or bisexual students attempted suicide between January and June 2021. For heterosexual students the number was 5.2% and other or questioning students at 16 .5%.
Lola Wang, therapist and owner of Fig Tree Counseling, said her conversations with young gay men reflect these statistics. Being at home may not be the safest environment for them, unlike school, she said.
“For many young people, school could be a safe environment for them because they could have their friends and teachers supporting them, while their home environment doesn’t provide the same security,” Wang said.
Social isolation is another stressor, said Iggy Ladden, founder and director of the Chicago Therapy Collective.
“Social development is so critical to the development of our identity as young people, and so not having those opportunities to really connect with others and really find ourselves more, I think that has a unique impact on the LGBTQ people,” Ladden said.
Additionally, there has been an onslaught of anti-transgender and anti-gay legislation across the country. As recently as last week, Alabama the governor signed the legislation which 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 aims to banned the school from using the program or discussing topics of gender identity or sexual orientation has prompted other states to consider legislation that mimics the law.
Young transgender and queer people have “become a punching bag,” Ladden said.
The legislation creates barriers for transgender people in accessing care, Wang said. In addition to fragile mental health due to the pandemic, there is now uncertainty and fear about the future for transgender people, she added.
“Many of our clients constantly worry about what will happen next – what else can be taken away from them?” Wang said. “And unfortunately, we don’t have an answer to that. Most of the time we just need to sit down with them and explore what are some of the things that we can actually control because there’s just a lot of stuff outside of us.
For parents who want to discuss these issues with their children, Ladden said first and foremost, make sure to talk about it and don’t hesitate. It is important that parents make it clear that they are open, available and interested in talking about it.
“They can feel less alone and more seen just by centering it in a conversation and bringing it up and making sure your child knows it’s terrible and unacceptable,” Ladden said.
It’s also important to connect children to the resources and care they need, Wang said.
“Sometimes when they are experiencing stress, it may not look like an adult experiencing the same issues,” Wang said. “So it’s important for parents to connect them with a mental health care provider who understands what it’s like to go through all of this 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).