By Danissa Coffey
LGBTQ+ youth are three times more likely to seriously contemplate suicide — and five times more likely to have attempted suicide — than their heterosexual counterparts, according to The Trevor Project, a national organization providing crisis intervention to LGBTQ+ people under the age of 25.
Why do these mental health disparities exist? The American Psychiatric Association suggests that health disparities for people in the LGBTQ+ community stem from stigma and discrimination, complicating the process of seeking health care and finding social support.
As many of us have witnessed in our own communities, rampant homophobia and poor understandings of mental health have compounded the challenges that queer youth face as they confront adolescence and young adulthood.
We have a responsibility to remedy mental health disparities and prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ youth. Here is how practitioners, family members and community-minded citizens can help.
As a NAMI volunteer and advocate for a Spanish-speaking family support group, I realize the transformative power of educating parents, family members and friends about mental illness and the mental health care system.
Ultimately, I’ve found that engaging family members about the challenges their loved ones face is a first step in creating comprehensive support networks for youth. When parents fully understand the intersection of mental illness and identity, they are better equipped to recognize LGBTQ+ health disparities and to help their children embrace the facets of their identity and live fulfilling lives.
Within my Mexican community, there is an immense stigma surrounding queer identity and mental illness. The LGBTQ+ stigma is due, in large part, to dominant Catholicism and conservative values in Latin American culture, while the stigma surrounding mental illness stems from a lack of education and parity between mental and physical health.
Unsurprisingly, the two issues are connected: dismantling health disparities requires breaking the stigma surrounding queer identities and mental health diagnoses.
Navigating homophobic environments as a queer person has a significant impact on mental health. Often, work environments and academic institutions prove to be toxic and unsafe, exposing LGBTQ+ individuals to bullying and harassment.
These institutions have a responsibility to improve their cultures and intentionally create spaces where LGBTQ+ students or employees feel supported and understood, but we must report incidents as they arise and demand better for ourselves and our colleagues. Systemic changes have proven to influence and remedy queer mental health disparities by contributing to an inclusive environment.
More broadly, we have a responsibility to change our culture from one of baseline tolerance to one of enthusiastic support for all identities. By embodying inclusivity, we can transform outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth.
While institutional change is a daunting task, we can each take responsibility for creating change at the individual level by ensuring access to youth-focused resources, such as crisis hotlines, text lines and social support platforms. Sharing crisis resources with loved ones, colleagues and community members can be a lifesaving measure.
Another option for support is connecting with local organizations. Get in touch with your local NAMI chapter, either in your county or state. If you are a family member of someone with mental illness, consider taking the NAMI Family-to-Family class (offered in Spanish) to learn more about mental health conditions and best practices for supporting loved ones.
Resources for LGBTQ+ Youth
The Trevor Project
Danissa Coffey is a pre-medical student at Cabrillo College and a participant in Stanford Medicine’s Leadership Education for Aspiring Physicians (LEAP) program to better mental health outcomes in her home of Santa Cruz County. Danissa’s project focuses on mental health education for Spanish-speaking family members in Watsonville.
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