Oregon’s youth depression and suicide rates consistently outstrip the national average for youth across the board – but for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) youth, the numbers paint an even gloomier picture for mental wellness.
Half of LGBTQ+ youth reported they had considered suicide and one fourth attempted suicide in 2017, according to the Oregon Healthy Teens Survey.
While all youth can struggle with their mental health, LGBTQ+ youth face unique challenges and barriers to accessing care, due to the double stigma of struggling with mental health concerns and being a minority when it comes to sexuality or gender identity.
One driver of LGBTQ+ despair comes from family rejection, a topic the Oregon Alliance to Prevent Suicide has taken up in the past year. The alliance, an advisory group to the Oregon Health Authority, has spent the (Continued from Page A1)
past year working to bring the Family Acceptance Project to Oregon. The Family Acceptance project is an initiative to educate parents and those who work with kids on the impact of rejecting the identity of their kids when they come out as queer.
The project, created by San Francisco State University, is informed by a study conducted by the university. The study examines the differences in how parents think about and treat their LGBTQ+ kids and how their kids feel about that treatment.
“It has identified a whole series of behaviors that LGBTQ youth experience as rejecting, that families may actually think protect their children,” said Annette Marcus, the state suicide prevention liaison for the alliance.
The Family Acceptance Project study elaborated upon how that dissonance occurs between intention and outcome.
“Many parents believe that the best way to help their gay or transgender children thrive as adults is to help them try to fit in with their heterosexual peers. This may mean trying to change their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” the SFSU study authors wrote. “It also often means preventing them from learning about homosexuality or from finding gay or transgender resources to help them develop a positive sense of the future as a gay or transgender adult.”
According to the study, physically abusive behaviors are just as detrimental to a young person’s wellbeing as emotional rejections, like preventing them from learning about queer identities or discouraging kids from making queer friends.
“Parents think they are helping their children survive in a world they feel will never accept them by trying to prevent them from learning about or from being gay. But adolescents feel as if their parents don’t love them, are ashamed of them or even hate them,” the SFSU study found.
Marcus said in her experience at the crossroads of suicide prevention and LGBTQ+ youth, most families don’t really understand the impact their outlook toward their child’s identity can have on them, even if it doesn’t result in physical abuse or abandonment of the child.
“Obviously there’s families out there that have pushed their kids out into the street and done really awful things,” she said. “But mostly families want what’s best for their kids, and don’t understand that they are potentially seriously harming their children” when they make remarks that are disparaging toward their LGBTQ+ kid’s identity.
“When you reject your LGBTQ youth, you are literally putting your child at risk for suicide,” Marcus said.
These rejections of identity go far beyond a child’s perception of their sexuality or gender identity, the study found.
“Young people feel that by rejecting their gay or transgender identity – a very core part of who they are as a person – their parents are rejecting all of who they are. Instead, these very different ideas about how best to help their gay children lead to family conflict and increase the adolescent’s distress and loss of hope,” the SFSU study found.
Rejection of LGBTQ+ kids, the study found, has a lasting impact on the child’s ability to live a healthy and productive life. Among other findings, the report correlated rejection of an LGBTQ+ child’s identity with increased risk of suicide attempts and depression. Youth who are “highly rejected” by their families, the report found, were “more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide” and “nearly six times as likely to report high levels of depression.”
Acceptance of an LGBTQ+ youth’s identity can’t start once the child comes out as gay or transgender, either. Parents need to be aware that their child can be impacted by the stray homophobic or transphobic comment at any age.
“I think parents need to remember, even when they have a 5-year-old, you don’t know which if one of your children might be gay,” Marcus said. “So the way you’re talking about gays, lesbians, the LGBTQ community - your child could be hearing [those comments] as being about them even when you don’t realize that.”
What’s also notable about the study, Marcus added, is that parents don’t have to be LGBTQ+ advocates to decrease their gay or transgender child’s risk of mental health concerns.
“Even small amounts of being more accepting have proven to have long term beneficial outcomes,” she said.
Family support is crucial for LGBTQ+ young people, who are also twice as likely as their straight and cisgender peers to be bullied at school or threatened with a weapon. The survey also found that LGBTQ+ young people were also “three times as likely to have stayed home from school because they were afraid for their safety at school.”
That makes safe spaces important for young people – both in their own home, but also in places that are specifically geared toward those who identify as they do. These spaces are often not readily available – for example, Salem-Keizer Public Schools only has two active Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. That means parents should take an active role in accepting their children and surrounding them with other supportive people as well.
“For LGBTQ youth to have a network of people who are unequivocally supportive, and had some shared life experience, is just an incredibly important kind of foundation for them for the rest of life,” Marcus said. “Your children want to be celebrated for who they are and it’s important for parents to listen to their children about what their needs are and who they need to have as community.”
When LGBTQ+ young people don’t have that foundation, it impacts their ability to see themselves succeeding later in life.
Due to lasting stigma and ostracization, LGBTQ+ youth can “feel like they don’t have a future, they don’t have hope or their family doesn’t want them, and so having spaces that emphasize their value is really crucial,” Marcus said.
And while Marcus’s work in suicide prevention can be depressing, she said, there’s also an upside: seeing people make it out of the dark places and into a better state of mind. But that doesn’t come without support.
“What we need to be pointing out to young people is their resilience and helping them to see ways to get through the hard time,” Marcus said. “All of us are going to experience hard times, but you can get through them.”
The Family Acceptance Project has created informational materials for parents of LGBTQ+ youth. Those materials can be accessed at familyproject.sfsu.edu/
For parents, friends, and allies of LGBTQ+ youth interested in advocacy and support, PFLAG meetings are held the second Monday and fourth Saturday of every month. For more information on the organization and its meeting times, visit PFLAG Salem’s Facebook page.
Next week: Learn about mental health resources available to struggling young people and how adults can use their stories of survival to help today’s teens.