- The Trevor Project has released its annual U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People.
- The new survey found that mental health among LGBTQ youth is worsening in part due to the current “hostile political climate.”
- In the past year, 41% of LGBTQ youth reported they considered attempting suicide.
In an annual national survey, The Trevor Project paints a comprehensive picture of mental health throughout the United States for LGBTQ youth.
Complementing past research, the national survey reveals that teens and young adults who are part of the greater LGBTQ community report higher rates of negative mental health issues and outcomes — such as elevated suicide risk, victimization and harassment, and being on the receiving end of societal stigma — compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers.
Outside of this, this new data also underscores how positively impactful affirming environments can be for LGBTQ youth. Being in schools and households that affirm one’s identity can greatly help combat some of these negative mental health effects.
In a time when news of anti-LGBTQ legislation and discrimination seem to be front and center in U.S. headlines, experts say this kind of research can offer a road map to ways we can better support our LGBTQ young people.
Higher numbers of young people are contemplating suicide
For The Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People, 28,524 U.S. -based LGBTQ youth (from the ages of 13 to 24) participated, recruited from targeted social media ads.
Among the findings, 41% reported they “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.” Within this number, about half of transgender and nonbinary youth and 29% of cisgender young people reported considering suicide attempts in the past year.
The survey also showed 67% of respondents reported recent symptoms of anxiety and 54% reported symptoms of depression. While these percentages of negative mental health symptoms are high, 56% of participants said that, despite wanting mental health care in the past year, they were unable to access it.
What accounts for this?
According to the survey, some of the biggest factors are:
- fear about discussing mental health
- concerns with parental permission
- fear of not being taken seriously
- lack of affordability
“The Trevor Project’s 2023 National Survey provides new, valuable insights into the impacts that the record wave of anti-LGBTQ policies across the country can have on the mental health of LGBTQ young people,” said Ronita Nath PhD, VP of Research at The Trevor Project, when asked to put the new findings in context.
“Most notably, findings demonstrated that nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation, and nearly 2 in 3 said hearing about potential state or local laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ people at school made their mental health a lot worse,” she added.
When asked what might account for the high percentages of youth who reported considering suicide attempts in the past year, Nath told Healthline that it’s crucial to note that “LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide.” Instead, they are placed at higher risk due to how they are mistreated by society at large.
“While there is no single explanation for why an LGBTQ young person may consider suicide, The Minority Stress Model is one of the most predominant theories used to explain mental health disparities experienced by LGBTQ individuals,” Nath explained. “This theory suggests that experiences of LGBTQ-based victimization — and the internalization of these experiences and anti-LGBTQ messages — can compound and produce negative mental health outcomes and increase suicide risk among LGBTQ individuals.”
She said this theory suggests “further marginalized LGBTQ youth (like youth of color, or those who identify as transgender or nonbinary) may have greater odds of experiencing minority stress.”
Nath added the new national survey offers insights into these groups within the greater LGBTQ youth community, but we need to see “more intersectional data collection from our leading government and public health institutions” to better understand and address suicide among some of the most vulnerable members of an LGBTQ community that consists of such a diverse, broad range of young people.
When zooming in on this data further, The Trevor Project reveals that almost 1 in 5 trans and nonbinary youth attempted suicide in the past year compared to 1 in 10 cisgender lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning young people — that number was at 8%.
Native and indigenous LGBTQ young people who reported attempting suicide stood at 22%, Middle Eastern/Northern African young people were at 18%, those who were multiracial were at 17%, Black youth were at 16%, and Latinx young people were at 15%. The survey shows that Asian American and Pacific Islander LGBTQ youth who reported attempted suicide in the past year numbered 10%, and white LGBTQ youth were at 11%.
The survey also shows those who identified as pansexual attempted suicide at a reported rate of 18% compared to 13% for lesbian youth, 11% for gay youth, and 12% for bisexual young people.
Additionally, when looking at the map of the country, LGBTQ youth from the South and Midwest reported the highest rates of suicide risk as well as anti-LGBTQ victimization.
How experiencing victimization plays into poor mental health effects
The data also points to the negative effects consistent victimization based on one’s sexual orientation or gender identity can have on these young people. Those who faced this victimization showed signs of higher rates of attempted suicide.
The survey reveals that 24% of LGBTQ youth reported they were physically threatened or harmed in the past year due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.
Those who experienced this victimization were “triple the rate of attempting suicide in the past year” in comparison to those who did not experience this.
A high 60% of LGBTQ youth reported they felt discriminated against in the past year and 15% also reported they were threatened with (or even subjected to) conversion therapy, which has long been pointed to as a psychologically dangerous practice.
The LGBTQ youth who felt they were discriminated against and those who faced these threats of conversion therapy stood at “more than double the rate” of attempted suicide than peers who did not report experiencing these two things.
Nath added that it’s important to note that “suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people.” She explained that LGBTQ youth are more than four times likelier to attempt suicide than their peers.
“The staggering stats coming from this new survey, like that 41% of LGBTQ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, is a clear indicator of a huge public health crisis that needs to be addressed,” she said. “We hope these findings serve as a wake-up call for youth-serving professionals to take action and do their part.”
The Importance of safe spaces for LGBTQ youth
The new survey also emphasizes just how beneficial safe spaces that nurture and affirm an LGBTQ young person’s identity can be. This could be one’s school or family home. Knowing your identity is respected can go a long way toward avoiding some of the mental health pitfalls detailed by this and other research.
This data also shows that “LGBTQ young people who had access to affirming homes, schools, community events, and online spaces reported lower rates of attempting suicide compared to those who did not,” and that transgender and nonbinary youth reported lower rates of suicide attempts if they lived with people who respected their pronouns and if they had access to a gender-neutral bathroom at their school, for example.
The survey shows 52% of nonbinary and trans youth reported having access to a gender-affirming school and 35% said they had access to a home that affirmed their gender.
“Our research has consistently shown that LGBTQ young people report lower rates of attempting suicide when they have access to affirming environments like schools, community centers, and online spaces. Conversely, when young people are denied access to these vital affirming spaces, their risk for suicide may be greater,” Nath added.
“For trans and nonbinary young people in particular – who are living through a historic wave of anti-transgender policies being implemented in states across the country, affirming spaces are especially vital. Each of us has the ability to educate ourselves on how best to support trans and nonbinary youth during this challenging time. The Trevor Project has a number of resources available for people who want to learn to show up for the young people in their lives,” she said.
Nath pointed to the organization’s Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Young People as one useful tool.
“Whether at school, home, in the workplace, or elsewhere – we can all do our part to help make spaces more inclusive and affirming for LGBTQ young people,” she said.
Other research has found similar results
Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), conducts research that often delves into similar areas as this new survey.
He recently released work that looks at links between sexual orientation and the amount of screen use among young people, as well as another recent study on the higher risk of sleep problems among LGB youth.
This research dovetails with some of the issues highlighted by The Trevor Project, and Nagata told Healthline this data can point to how some of these interrelated issues point to mental health issues and stressors that affect LGBTQ youth at large.
For instance, when asked what accounts for the disruption in sleep for queer youth, Nagata said that factors like depression, stress, and family conflict can play a role. Trouble getting along with one’s family, feelings of hopelessness and sadness can play a role in affecting healthy sleep patterns for these young people.
“LGB young people may face discrimination and negative attitudes because of their sexual orientation. These experiences can make it harder for them to get a good night’s sleep,” he added.
How does this affect mental health directly?
“Getting enough sleep is crucial for teenagers because it helps their body and mind grow and develop properly. Disruptions in sleep can have significant impacts on one’s mental health, especially for youth who are already navigating a complex web of stressors related to their LGBTQ+ identities,” Nagata explained.
“Lack of quality sleep can exacerbate existing mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression and make it more difficult to cope with stressors. Sleep disruptions can also lead to mood swings, irritability, and difficulty concentrating, which can negatively affect academic performance,” Nagata added
He also pointed out that disruptions in sleep and mental health interact and “create a cycle of negative effects.”
Poor sleep may exacerbate existing mental health issues like depression while increased stress and family conflict might make it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep in the first place. Nagata said this may create a “vicious cycle where poor sleep contributes to mental health issues and stress” resulting in further sleep problems.
Screentime can also negatively affect mental health
When it comes to screen use and the role it can play in mental health, Nagata pointed to a current always-plugged-into-social media culture that isn’t ideal for LGBTQ young people’s overall mental health and well-being.
“Lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents are more likely to experience school-based bullying and exclusion from peer groups due to their sexual orientation, leading them to spend less time in traditional school activities and more time on screens,” he said, contextualizing his research. “Texting, and using social media and the internet for virtual communication could be helpful for LGB preteens to find and receive support from other LGB people who may not be available in their local communities.”
“Adolescents with problematic screen use reported symptoms of addiction, overuse, conflict, tolerance, and relapse. Examples include using screens too much, having conflicts related to screen use, using screens to forget about problems, and having difficulty quitting even when they want to. We found that LGB youth reported greater problematic social media and mobile phone use compared to their straight peers,” he added.
How to support LGBTQ young people
Nagata’s point about upsetting content that can be found on phones and social media plays into another area of The Trevor Project’s survey — how news of the day is affecting the nation’s LGBTQ youth.
Given that 2 in 3 LGBTQ young people reported that hearing news about discriminatory laws and policies had adverse effects on mental health, Nath said this should be an exclamation point to note when it comes to creating interventions to improve one’s mental health.
How can you protect your mental health when it may feel absolutely necessary to stay abreast of what policies and events are affecting the communities you are a part of? Is it even possible to unplug in this connected age?
“Staying informed and aware of the anti-LGBTQ bills impacting our communities is important. However, we know that reading negative news day after day can take a heavy toll — especially on the mental health of LGBTQ young people,” Nath said.
“One way to protect your mental health is to give yourself the opportunity to unplug and take breaks from consuming this difficult news as needed. We encourage all LGBTQ young people to give themselves the permission to find joy as often as they can — whether that means watching a favorite TV show, taking a walk outside, or connecting with a friend. It’s important that we take time to recharge so that we have energy to channel into taking action against these anti-LGBTQ bills,” Nath added.
She also pointed to support systems and positive connections with one’s community as essential for protecting one’s mental health. Nath suggested that young people turn to TrevorSpace.org — The Trevor Project’s online safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth — as one tool if they are in need of community.
Nagata, who is unaffiliated with The Trevor Project’s survey, said that those young people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community might experience isolation, anxiety, and depression if they consume consistent negative or upsetting information about what is affecting their community
“It is important for individuals to be mindful of their social media use and to take steps to protect their mental health. This may include limiting exposure to anti-LGBTQ+ content, taking breaks from social media, and seeking support from mental health professionals or LGBTQ+ support groups,” he said.
Are there suggestions for how parents and guardians can navigate this environment for the young people in their lives?
He suggests making sure young people get good, quality sleep, is one of the best things parents and guardians can do.
“It may also be helpful to seek support from mental health professionals or LGBTQ+ support groups to address any underlying stressors that may be contributing to sleep disruptions,” he said. “To sleep well, LGBTQ+ youth should follow a consistent sleep routine, make sure their sleeping environment is comfortable, and avoid using electronic devices before going to bed.”
Additionally, he said parents and guardians should discuss screen usage with the LGBTQ young people in their lives and develop a “family media use plan.”
“Parents can develop a family media use plan which could include setting limits and encouraging screen-free time, such as before bedtime or during family meals,” he said. “Parents should try to model healthy screen behaviors for their children. One of the biggest predictors of kids’ screen use is their parents’ screen use. Teachers and schools can offer classes on digital literacy to show teens how to use devices in a responsible way and avoid unhealthy usage habits.”
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