Today’s socio-political backdrop includes aggressive legislation limiting the very mention of sexual orientation or gender identity, the banning of books in schools and libraries, and an ongoing fight for gender-affirming healthcare. Is it any wonder, then, that students in the LGBTQ+ community are experiencing a mental health crisis, and facing unique challenges compared to their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts?
According to a 2021 survey conducted by The Trevor Project, 62% of LGBTQ+ youth reported symptoms of a major depressive disorder in the past two weeks and 42% seriously considered suicide in the past year. While in school, LGBTQ+ students are more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to experience poor mental health, bullying, and harassment. This increases for transgender and nonbinary students.
Many of these students are actively seeking help; they just can’t access it. Sixty-percent of LGBTQ youth wanted mental health care in the past year, but were not able to get it. The most common reasons: fear of discussing mental health concerns, concerns with obtaining permission from a parent or caregivers, fear of not being taken seriously, and affordability of services.
Higher education leaders have an opportunity to support LGBTQ+ students in an informed and sensitive manner. Here are six ways to recognize and meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community:
1. Improve and highlight your campus policies.
The best way to build a more inclusive campus and learning environment is to adjust your policies. Every college and university should have anti-bullying and harassment policies that protect LGBTQ+ staff and faculty and LGBTQ+ students, especially transgender and gender nonconforming students, LGBTQ+ students of color, and those with learning, physical, and mental health disabilities who may face additional hardships.
Make sure your policies are clear, consistent, and comprehensive and your institution's vision and mission statement is inclusive of all students, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, racial or ethnic background, and socioeconomic status. An overall indicator of your institution’s commitment to LGBTQ-inclusive policy, program and practice can be found using the Campus Pride Index.
2. Expand mental health care for LGBTQ+ college students.
Ninety-four percent of LGBQT youth said that it was important for them to have access to a 24/7 crisis line. The same percentage preferred to have access to a counselor via text. Meanwhile, 78% wished for webchat access, and 77% preferred phone access.
Your campus may have limited mental health options for LGBTQ+ students, many of whom have intersectional identities and need more specialized, tailored services. You should consider expanding your existing counseling services and working with a mental health care provider that offers more diverse and accessible therapy and psychiatry services.
3. Make resources and guides readily available to all students, staff, faculty, and the community at large.
Offer LGBTQ+ students a guide to campus life, which includes a comprehensive list of relevant student groups, counseling center information, mental health resources, and directions to LGBTQ+-friendly spaces. The Spectrum Center at The University of Michigan provides this extensive guide listing scholarship opportunities, local clinics that provide trans care, LGBTQ+-friendly faith spaces, among other valuable resources.
You should include local and national organizations or advocacy groups, such as Trans Student Educational Resources, Point Foundation, Matthew Shepard Foundation, among others, as well as reading lists (example from Brown University), a pronoun guide (example from the University of Connecticut), a glossary, and a list of on-campus groups, which may include the Genders & Sexualities Alliance or other groups for allies.
4. Align relevant campus centers, departments, and services.
There is strength in the community. To build a better campus environment for your LGBTQ+ students, be sure to align with different stakeholders across different departments. You may have a gender and sexuality department, diversity center, LGBTQ+ center, counseling services and health centers, among others. Make sure you build a bridge between all of them, fostering consistent communication and alignment. You can also build a committee of advocates in order to discuss LGBTQ+ student needs, such as a campus task force.
Leverage your collective power to support LGBTQ+ students and protect their rights to gender expression, freedom from discrimination, the right to assemble, right to access facilities that match gender identities, and safety from bullying and harassment.
5. Provide professional development and diversity training to faculty and staff.
Most counselors and administrators (58%) do not believe they receive enough training to support the needs of LGBTQ+ students. If you have the funding, you can develop your own DEI workshops and training. You can also utilize training resources from Campus Pride, The Safe Zone Project, The Trevor Project, GLAAD, and It Gets Better Project, among other organizations. Check with your local LGBTQ+ community resource center, too, as they may also offer training and workshops accessible to your campus.
6. Foster safe and affirming spaces on campus for LGBTQ+ students.
LGBTQ youth who have access to spaces that affirm their sexual orientation and gender identity report lower rates of attempting suicide. If you don’t already have these spaces on campus, create them. In addition, student affairs should align with LGBTQ+ student groups and the institution's LGBTQ+ resource center, if it exists, to create informative, interactive, and fun events and activities for LGBTQ+ students. Encourage a sense of revelry, joy, and (yes) pride in the LGBTQ+ community by marking meaningful events. Lavender Graduation, for example, is an annual event sponsored on college campuses by the Human Rights Campaign and honors LGBTQ+ graduates.
A commitment to LGBTQ+ students is a commitment to the whole student body. According to research conducted by Learning for Justice, LGBTQ+ students thrive in environments where their identities are acknowledged and valued. In fact, all students benefit from a school setting that priorities safety, inclusion, and accessibility.
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