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Supporting LGBTQ Students During Social Distancing

Experts at The Trevor Project offered their recommendations for ways educators can support LGBTQ students through coronavirus school closures.

In this unprecedented time for schools, families and students, we need to recognize that two things are true at once: Social distancing is the right thing to do, and social distancing can exacerbate challenges faced by our most vulnerable students. 

This truth has manifested in many ways in recent weeks, including for LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ students with unaccepting families may face unsafe environments. Those who rely on GSAs or friends at school for accepting communities may feel especially isolated. And with LGBTQ students more likely to experience homelessness, lack of access to health care and other intersectional oppressions (such as AAPI students simultaneously experiencing racist rhetoric around coronavirus), the pandemic has laid bare many of the systemic challenges they face—and the dangers those challenges can pose in a crisis. 

To help educators better support LGBTQ students from a distance, TT spoke with The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention, crisis intervention and educational program that serves LGBTQ youth. We hope their recommendations help educators feel more capable and confident reaching out and listening to their LGBTQ students.

What are you hearing right now from LGBTQ youth? Have you noticed any changes during this time of mandated social distancing?

At The Trevor Project, our crisis contact volume has been significantly higher than in recent months and has spiked at nearly two times the normal volume. Mentions of the pandemic have increased more than 60 times over the last month, and we are seeing LGBTQ youth report a range of emotions, from anger and anxiety to sadness and depression.

What should educators and adults know about how LGBTQ youth are handling increased social isolation, time at home and anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The isolation and uncertainty surrounding this pandemic can exacerbate ongoing anxieties, and LGBTQ youth may be particularly vulnerable. Even prior to the pandemic, LGBTQ youth have been found to be at significantly increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use and suicidality.

And now many LGBTQ young people no longer have access to their usual support systems. Some may have been on a journey of recovery from substances or other mental health improvements that feel derailed by COVID-19. A trans youth might be in the process of transitioning and [be] afraid that this crisis will interrupt this process. A young person might have unstable housing or no housing and may fear that developing symptoms will put their housing in jeopardy. There are also many situations where LGBTQ young people could be at greater risk of being exposed to COVID-19 with little or no access to health care.

For most students across the United States, schools are either closed completely or transitioning to remote learning from home. How might this specifically affect LGBTQ students who find an accepting community at school or perhaps do not find acceptance at home?

For LGBTQ young people, many of whom already face unique mental health challenges due to increased experiences with discrimination and harassment, social isolation can mean being forced back into the closet or unsupportive, even abusive home environments. Many LGBTQ young people no longer have access to the affirming community they found at school. LGBTQ youth should seek affirming connections either through existing support networks or by joining safe online spaces for LGBTQ youth.

[Here’s an] excerpt from our new report:

“Research suggests that among LGBTQ youth, only one-third experience parental acceptance, with an additional one-third experiencing parental rejection, and the final one-third not disclosing their LGBTQ identity until they are adults (Katz-Wise et al., 2015). Another study found that LGB young adults who report high levels of parental rejection are eight times more likely to report attempting suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression (Ryan et al., 2009). Unsupportive environments may result in increased dysphoria, particularly among transgender and/or nonbinary youth, as some may need to hide their authentic selves to maintain safety. Furthermore, LGBTQ youth report greater rates of sexual, psychological, and physical abuse than their straight/cisgender peers (Baams, et al., 2018; Friedman et al., 2011). Intimate partner violence is also more prevalent in the LGBTQ community, including among youth and young adults (Calton et al., 2016). As such, some home environments may pose serious risks to LGBTQ youth mental and physical health.”

Read the rest of The Trevor Project’s new report, Implications of COVID-19 for LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, here.

Are there ways educators, school leaders or counselors can signal support to LGBTQ students who may be in unaccepting environments? 

Support from adults is crucial. Our research shows that LGBTQ youth who report having at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year. During this time, it is so important to check in with LGBTQ students.

Furthermore, an unintended consequence of physical distancing is that it may provide fewer opportunities for mandated reporters and other concerned individuals to observe signs of potential abuse and domestic violence. Those in direct contact with LGBTQ youth can ask them directly about whether or not they feel safe and supported in their current living situation. Efforts to proactively support youth in non-supportive environments can help youth problem solve to promote physical and emotional safety and allow them to see that they are not alone.

[We write] more on school interactions in our new report:

“As schools move their academic curriculum to online delivery, there is a need to ensure that protective factors provided by schools such as supportive individuals and extracurricular activities can also be accessed virtually. Given the known benefits of activity involvement, schools should identify and promote activities that may provide similar benefits without jeopardizing physical distancing. LGBTQ youth should be encouraged to seek and take advantage of opportunities that allow them to connect with others in shared activities outside of the walls of their schools. Teachers and health professionals in schools should also make office hours available to provide support to students. Additionally, schools should work to ensure that opportunities, such as GSA involvement, are available to students virtually when schools are in session.

School professionals should also attend to ways that school bullying and cyberbullying might be experienced differently in new online school communities and work to monitor and minimize instances of cyberbullying.”

Many educators may not know how to respond if LGBTQ youth come to them with anxieties. What steps would you hope educators follow in receiving such messages online during a time of distance learning?

Practice empathy and listen without judgment.

Foster the creation of safe, accepting environments wherever you are.

Share helpful mental health and self-care resources.

Direct LGBTQ youth who are feeling hopeless or suicidal to call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or reach out to our Chat/Text services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help.

Do you have any recommendations educators can pass along to LGBTQ youth to combat feelings of social isolation or isolation from accepting communities?

Do all you can during this time to seek connections. Reach out to your friends and chosen family. For those with access, use technology and the internet to stay connected with your loved ones or to find affirming community. LGBTQ youth seeking community online should consider using TrevorSpace, the world’s largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth, to connect with young people who might be going through similar experiences.

Stress and anxiety are normal reactions to what is happening in the world right now. But it is also so important to focus on mental health and remember self-care. That could mean learning a new dance on TikTok, watching your favorite YouTuber, reading a book or watching a show, doing yoga or taking a walk.

For more advice and support specific to this moment, the Trevor Project offers this resource: “How LGBTQ youth can cope with anxiety and stress during COVID-19.”

What else should educators know about The Trevor Project and the resources you offer?

The Trevor Project is the world's largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. The Trevor Project offers a suite of 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs, including TrevorLifeline, TrevorText, and TrevorChat, as well as the world’s largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth, TrevorSpace.

The Trevor Project also operates an education program with resources for youth-serving adults and organizations, an advocacy department fighting for pro-LGBTQ legislation and against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric/policy positions, and a research team to discover the most effective means to help young LGBTQ people in crisis and end suicide. If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless or suicidal, our trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at www.TheTrevorProject.org/Help or by texting START to 678678.

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