- New research from The Trevor Project found that social and political issues can greatly impact the mental health and overall well-being of LGBTQ youth.
- Racism, homophobia, school safety, gun violence, and policies targeting the rights of LGBTQ people were all named as distressing concerns for LGBTQ youth.
- Ongoing exposure to hostile rhetoric can lead an LGBTQ young person to experience anxiety, a lack of concentration, depression, and suicidal ideation.
In our current 24/7, information-driven age, it can be hard to escape upsetting — oftentimes triggering — news on the social and political issues that impact our daily lives.
This is especially true for LGBTQ+ young people in the United States.
This week, The Trevor Project released new data that outline just how much the larger social and political currents coursing through society today — from proposed discriminatory anti-trans legislation to the effects of racism to concerns over school safety and gun violence — are greatly affecting the mental health and overall well-being of LGBTQ youth.
Casey Pick, JD, senior fellow for Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project, told Healthline that she can’t say it’s surprising to see how things like the current “onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation” can affect an LGBTQ young person’s mental health.
But she said it is helpful to have data like this to quantify how it’s impacting youth across the country.
By seeing this data and hearing from these young people themselves, it can offer a window into how best to serve LGBTQ+ youth and what more needs to be done in our society at large.
What the data show
For the new survey, The Trevor Project used data from a poll conducted by Morning Consult from September 14, 2021 to November 5, 2021. They reached out to 820 LGBTQ+ young people, ages 13 to 24.
Breaking the survey population down further, this included 318 transgender and nonbinary youth and 340 LGBTQ Youth of Color. Out of the young People of Color, 56 percent were Black.
Among the findings, 85 percent of the transgender and nonbinary young people surveyed reported that the recent national debates around proposed state laws that target the rights of transgender people have “negatively impacted their mental health,” according to a press release from The Trevor Project.
Additionally, 66 percent of all LGBTQ+ youth surveyed also reported that news of this anti-trans legislation had a negative impact on their overall mental health.
Zeroing in further, discussions around policies that attempt to ban transgender girls and boys from playing in girls’ and boys’ sports teams, respectively, made 74 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth “feel angry,” while 57 percent said they felt sad, 43 percent felt stressed, and almost 1 in every 3 reported feeling scared.
Along with this, proposed legislation in which doctors would be banned from prescribing gender-affirming medical care such as puberty blockers or hormone replacement therapy to nonbinary and trans youth, led 73 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth to feel angry, 57 percent to feel sad, 47 percent to feel stressed, 40 percent to feel scared, and more than 1 in 3 to feel “hopeless, helpless, and/or nervous.”
The survey also asked an open-ended question: “What social issue impacting our country/world is most important to you?”
Most youth surveyed — across race, ethnicity, and gender identity — declared racism was at the top of their list. This was followed by LGBTQ rights and equality, climate change, and homophobia.
When it came to devising a list of issues that could determine sources of stress and anxiety for these young people, 58 percent cited anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, and 56 percent named homophobia as having given them stress and anxiety “very often.”
After this, it was not having enough money at 50 percent and racism at 49 percent.
The Trevor Project reports that more than 65 percent of LGBTQ youth reported that police brutality, transphobia, gun violence, climate change, and “efforts to restrict abortion access” were also regular sources of anxiety and stress.
“I have to say I appreciate the extent to which LGBTQ young people also call out racism as a major concern and something that is affecting them. That is something we need to take into account as we make policy,” Pick said.
She added that The Trevor Project’s digital and lifeline crisis services teams regularly report that LGBTQ youth in the United States are often citing fears and concerns over the current wave of proposed legislation and policies that directly target them.
“They are afraid and concerned and upset when they hear that access to best practice medical care may be threatened, or that they may be forced off their sports team that has been their place of finding a sense of belonging and acceptance and, honestly, fun in a really challenging time,” Pick explained.
“So, we hear about these concerns from youth in crisis, and we also see it here in our research and our polling,” Pick said.
The COVID-19 pandemic also dovetailed with a lot of the stress and anxiety felt by these young people.
About 63 percent of them reported “feeling scared about the future,” while 46 percent said they had anxiety around in-person learning. Also, 50 percent and 40 percent reported being stressed and nervous, respectively, about the 2021–2022 school year.
About 53 percent of trans and nonbinary young people reported having difficulty accessing mental health care compared to 28 percent of their cisgender LGBTQ peers.
Economic insecurity also plays a big role, with more than 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth respondents saying they struggled to afford “things they need.”
When it came to concerns over racism, Black LGBTQ+ youth were more likely to report racism as the most pressing issue impacting them, compared to white LGBTQ+ youth who cited racism and LGBTQ rights as almost equally affecting them as the most important issue right now.
Four in 5 transgender and nonbinary youth said that anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, and racism gave them stress and anxiety. This was much higher than for their cisgender LGBTQ peers.
For Black LGBTQ+ youth, 16 percent said racism, 15 percent said police brutality, and 9 percent named gun violence as “very often” being the source of their stress and anxiety.
When it came to their white LGBTQ+ peers, 13 percent named transphobia, 11 percent said anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, and 10 percent cited current efforts to restrict abortion access as issues leading to comparable amounts of stress and anxiety.
“This poll shows clearly that intersectional concerns are real, that our youth who reported being LGBTQ and also People of Color called out more intensely different concerns. Some of them were more concerned expressly about issues of racism, access to food, housing, contending with poverty,” Pick said.
“Similarly, if we look at transgender and nonbinary youth within the survey, they were disproportionately reporting by like 53 percent having a hard time getting access to mental health care when they wanted it as opposed to cisgender bisexual, lesbian, gay peers who, at 28 percent, said they had a hard time getting access to that care. Still, that is far too high, but there is a disparity there,” she added.
She also pointed out that these negative effects are “broad and sweeping” and that “you really do need to look closely to see nuance.”
The realities of this current era
Of course, with the constant social media updates, divisive — often vitriolic — cable TV debates, and a toxic, turbocharged political environment that we’re all currently living in, it can be hard to escape the news of the day.
For LGBTQ+ young people, especially those who are part of particularly vulnerable communities, whose very identities — even existences — are flattened to just political talking points, it can be hard to escape the effects of this national discourse.
How does one manage their mental and overall health and well-being in this kind of environment?
Dr. Matthew Hirschtritt, MPH, a psychiatrist and researcher at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, said the mental health effects of this overwhelming cascade of negative and triggering information can manifest themselves in a number of ways.
For an LGBTQ+ young person processing this information, they might experience anxiety, or a lack of concentration, depression, and suicidal ideation.
When you step away and look at the larger picture beyond an individual’s experience, the environment of that anti-trans legislation, for instance, can make it hard for a young person to feel comfortable going about their day.
Using the example of legislation targeting transgender people, Hirschtritt told Healthline that the proposed laws themselves, and the negative cultural, political, and media environment that they create, can make it so that a young trans or nonbinary person might no longer feel safe or supported in a school environment or their community at large.
They might be bullied in school or not receive the services they need due to discrimination in medical settings, for instance.
Essentially, these big social and political issues can affect people on the individual level, but also make for an inhospitable environment where a young person might not know where to turn for support and safety.
How to help LGBTQ+ youth manage this stress and anxiety
When asked what a young person can do to deal with all of this, Hirschtritt said that one helpful avenue is turning to a supportive adult, guardian, or mentor in their lives.
It doesn’t even have to be a parent — just someone who “really validates a supportive environment in which the youth is positively regarded and is being really protected against some of the negative messaging that they are hearing about in the community,” Hirschtritt said.
Pick echoed those thoughts, and in fact, research bears it out.
“Parents, school teachers, mentors — they can all play a tremendously important role in benefiting the health and well-being of LGBTQ young people. At the Trevor Project, we have research that tells us one supportive adult can reduce an LGBTQ young person’s likelihood of attempting suicide by up to 40 percent,” she explained.
“We also have research that demonstrates the importance of having welcoming and affirming environments, places that make a young person feel accepted and embraced for who they are,” she said.
Pick added that a school could be that environment, but it’s up to the administrators and educators to facilitate that.
Having policies in place that can make a young person feel affirmed and safe are crucial. Pick said just the simple act of respecting a trans or nonbinary person’s pronouns in a classroom or “just expressing support and welcome to an LGBTQ young person goes a long way to reducing suicidality and improving overall mental health.”
Hirschtritt, who was not affiliated with The Trevor Project’s survey, said that access to mental health care that’s supportive and validates one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is key, as well as being in an environment with supportive peers.
He said support groups are venues that can be particularly helpful, and while the pandemic has moved a lot of that online, digital connections with like-minded peers who might be going through similar life experiences can be crucial.
One big suggestion both Pick and Hirschtritt recommended was to unplug a bit. It might not always be helpful to be glued to comment threads below news articles about anti-trans legislation, for instance.
“Some of the chatter that goes on there can be discriminatory and stigmatizing. Try avoiding those unmoderated comments because they can oftentimes be triggering,” he added.
Ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, The Trevor Project released this guide to help young people cope with some of the intense discussions and emotions that the particularly charged political environment was bringing to the fray.
Pick said that some of the advice they included was that “sometimes you just need to turn off social media” and “it’s okay to not feel like you have to be on the cutting edge of every last story that is about LGBTQ young people.”
“Just giving yourself permission to not have to be confronted by all of this political vitriol, particularly just the piles of misinformation and stigma and stereotypes that we are hearing about, is helpful,” she said.
“I am a professional advocate, I’ve been doing this for more than 10 years and when I hear some of these committee hearings about these bills, with hours of testimony, it even hurts me to listen to it, so it is not surprising that when our young people are paying attention to the political process that is debating their lives and rights, they are upset about it,” she added.
Hirschtritt said that getting involved in activism and advocacy work could be a way for some LGBTQ+ young people to feel more empowered during this time, but on the flip side, a young person shouldn’t have to “feel the burden” of adding that kind of pressure to their plate.
“For a lot of youth in rural areas, for instance, they may receive really negative or disparaging comments about their sexual orientation or gender identity on a regular basis, and being able to plan ahead for educational or financial independence might be important,” he added.
“They might need to develop different life skills than some of their peers,” he said. “A lot of LGBTQ youth are forced out of their homes when they are relatively young, they may need a lot of these more adult skills sooner than non-LGBTQ youth in order to survive on their own.”
Hirschtritt said that a lot of non-LGBTQ youth “might take for granted that their core identity is validated in media, at home, in school, outside in the community.” However, that isn’t the case for many LGBTQ+ young people.
He pointed to the disparities by race and ethnicity and how young People of Color might be on the receiving end of more, different stressors and antagonisms than many of their white peers. The same goes for trans and nonbinary youth compared to their LGBTQ cisgender peers.
It’s important to keep in mind the “multiple sources of discrimination a young person faces already on top of their LGBTQ identity,” he added.
Pick said The Trevor Project’s new survey is an “ever-present reminder” of the resilience of LGBTQ+ young people.
“These youth are finding ways to turn off the faucet of hostile rhetoric that is directed against them and focus on ways to find joy and community,” she said. “That is something that is admirable and impressive.”