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'Crisis upon crisis': COVID-19 has put the mental health of LGBTQ young people in peril, survey shows

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The past year has taken a punishing toll on the mental health of LGBTQ teens and young adults, a survey released Wednesday shows.

LGBTQ youths of color felt bigger barbs of discrimination; state legislatures cranked out harmful bills targeting young transgender people; food insecurities soared.  

And a pandemic that has had the U.S. in its clutches for more than 12 months has been particularly cruel, leaving many LGBTQ young people struggling without backbones of support, according to the poll by the Trevor Project, which provides crisis and suicide prevention services for those under 25.

“It’s been crisis upon crisis ... a very long and very challenging year,” said Amit Paley, the Trevor Project’s CEO and executive director.

The poll of 35,000 LGBTQ youths 13 to 24 lays bare the pandemic’s pain points: More than 80% said COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful – and only 1 in 3 found their homes to be LGBTQ-affirming.  

Seventy percent said their mental health was "poor" most of the time or always during the health crisis. Nearly half – 48% – reported that they wanted counseling from a mental health professional in the past year but were unable to receive it. 

“COVID has had such a dramatic impact on so many people, but it has had a particularly profound impact on LGBTQ youths, limiting their sources of support or affirmation,” Paley said.

Elementary and high school students forced into virtual learning were often cut off from guidance counselors who may have been the teens’ only nurturing outlet, he said.

College students coming to terms with their identity or orientation “suddenly had to go home and make really difficult choices whether to go back in the closet or come out to their family before they were ready to do so,” Paley said. Living situations could be perilous for some young people who were threatened with abuse or booted onto the streets; others couldn’t access medical care, he said.

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The economic impact was equally severe: Nearly 40% of LGBTQ young people who had a job reported that they lost it during the pandemic, according to the poll. And 30% of respondents reported having trouble affording enough food in the past month, including half of all Native/Indigenous LGBTQ youths and more than 1 in 3 Black and Latino LGBTQ youths. Twenty-seven percent feared food at their home would run out.

42% weighed suicide, survey shows 

The survey reveals an alarming statistic: 42% – including more than half of transgender and nonbinary young people – seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

LGBTQ youths who experienced discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identify and race/ethnicity reported much higher rates of attempted suicide than those who had not, the report shows: 36% vs 7%.

For LGBTQ youths of color, the burdens of bias are high, Paley said. Half of all LGBTQ youths of color reported discrimination based on their race/ethnicity in the past year, including 67% of Black LGBTQ youths and 60% of Asian/Pacific Islander LGBTQ youths. 

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“Young people hold multiple identities,” he said. “When they are targets of discrimination and hatred in society it creates unique challenges.”

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Harmful legislation puts 'lives at risk'

The report shows that validating trans and nonbinary young people by respecting their pronouns, allowing them to use their correct gender markers on documents and giving them access to supportive spaces lead to lower rates of suicide attempts.

“That is why these relentless attacks by lawmakers are so horrifying and so dangerous,” Paley said. “We have people in positions of power expressing contempt and denial of trans and nonbinary people.”

The multitude of bills coming out of statehouses – many denying young transgender people access to health care or blocking them from school sports – puts “lives at risk. This is a suicide prevention issue,” he said.

Previous public health crises show that repercussions can linger for marginalized communities, Paley said. But he is cautiously optimistic that as the U.S. finally turns the corner on the pandemic, LGBTQ youths will see some light.

“Our hope is that we can make sure that young people who didn’t have access to affirming spaces and health care get that now,” he said.