Patricia Reeves and her husband have worked hard to make sure that their child is safe at school.
They asked the principal of one school to stop students from bullying Milo, who is nonbinary, and they took Milo out of another school because a teacher wouldn’t use the right pronouns. Inside their home in West Texas, the parents do their best to boost their child’s self-esteem and strength, or, as Reeves put it, to “build up our little soldier.”
But no matter how hard they try, they can’t keep Milo from all the trouble and even danger that comes with being different at school.
Reeves said, “As long as you’re a tough mom, you can get out in front of it.” But the harm has already been done.
The damage is huge. Two new reports based on large-scale student surveys show that most LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school and have trouble with their mental health.
A survey of students in 20 states by the nonprofit YouthTruth found that LGBTQ students had much higher rates of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts than their peers. Transgender and nonbinary youth had the highest rates of depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts. The survey, which came out on Monday, also found that the mental health of girls is worse than that of boys.
Another report from just recently helps explain why LGBTQ students are upset: According to a national survey of LGBTQ students done in 2021 and released this month by GLSEN, a group that works to make schools safe and welcoming, the vast majority were harassed or attacked at school, and many heard school staff use homophobic language.
Caitlin Clark, a senior research associate at GLSEN and co-author of the report, said, “Most LGBTQ students go to schools that are unsafe, unwelcoming, and don’t affirm them.”
The reports show that, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the youth mental health crisis has hurt marginalized groups more than others. They also say that the national campaign to improve the mental health of young people could fail LGBTQ students if it doesn’t address the causes of their pain, such as bullying at school and social stigmatization, which advocates say is made worse by the recent rise in anti-LGBTQ laws.
Reeves goes to a support group for parents of children who don’t act like their birth gender. There, she hears about what happens when vulnerable young people are treated so badly.
“Every single one of our kids has some kind of mental health problem because they don’t feel fully accepted,” she said.
The mental health of girls and LGBTQ students is worse.
Already getting worse for at least a decade, the mental health of young people got worse so quickly during the pandemic that medical groups called it a “national emergency.”
But warnings of a wide-scale crisis can hide a consistent trend in the data: LGBTQ students and girls are having more trouble than their peers.
More than 80% of high school students who identify as transgender or nonbinary and almost 70% of girls said that depression, stress, or anxiety got in the way of their learning last school year. Only 40% of boys said the same thing, according to the YouthTruth survey, which was taken by more than 220,000 students during the 2021-22 school year but is not nationally representative. And from elementary school to high school, boys were more likely to say they were happy than girls or students who didn’t fit either gender.
The survey also showed that about a third of LGBTQ high school students had seriously thought about trying to kill themselves in the past year. This was four times as many as the number of non-LGBTQ students who said they had thought about it.
Surveys done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the pandemic and in the 10 years before it showed similar trends: high school students who are female or LGBTQ are most likely to say they have bad mental health and think about suicide.
LGBTQ students are more likely than their peers to think about killing themselves.
About a third of LGBTQ middle and high school students said they had seriously thought about committing suicide in the past year. This is at least four times as many as the number of non-LGBTQ students who said the same thing.
Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, which did a national survey of students in 2021, said that all of these students were doing worse before the pandemic. “What we saw in these numbers was really more of the same,” they said.
LGBTQ students don’t get much help at school.
Tati Martnez Alvarez wishes their school had a club for LGBTQ students, “a place where we could hang out without worrying about being judged.”
Tati, who is in the 11th grade, said that students at her small public high school in South Texas want such a club, but the school doesn’t have one. Tati said that even though a lot of students say they are LGBTQ, the school doesn’t do much to acknowledge or embrace this group.
They said, “I don’t think that will happen.” “Maybe in 20 years or so.”
The GLSEN survey, which talked to more than 22,000 LGBTQ students in grades 6–12, found that Tati’s situation is pretty typical. Students come from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and a few U.S. territories.
Only 35% of those who answered said that their school had a Gay Straight Alliance or a similar club that would be active during the 2020-21 school year. Less than 30% of people said their classes talk about LGBTQ issues, and only 8% of people said their schools had policies to help transgender and nonbinary students.
The survey found that many LGBTQ students don’t get support at school, but instead face hostility.
More than 80% of the people who answered the survey and went to school in person at some point in 2020-21 were harassed or attacked because of their sexual orientation, gender expression, race, or ethnicity. Nearly 60% of students said they had heard teachers or other school staff say things that were homophobic, and more than 70% said they had heard staff say negative things about how they showed their gender.
Dr. Morissa Ladinsky, a pediatrician in Alabama who cares for transgender kids in a way that affirms their gender, said that this kind of intolerance is sad but common in schools.
“Some have been bullied by other students, which most don’t report out of fear of retaliation or not being taken seriously. However, many have been intimidated or even bullied by adults in their school,” she wrote in an email, adding that the constant fear of being mistreated can lead to “anxiety, depression, and underachievement in school.”
The GLSEN survey found that LGBTQ students who are bullied at school are more likely than their peers to miss school, get bad grades, have low self-esteem, and feel depressed.
Tati said, “When you don’t see yourself represented at school, you can feel very confused, very anxious, and very depressed because there’s nowhere to turn.”
Anti-LGBTQ laws make people worry more.
In many states, LGBTQ students can’t get help from people in office.
Instead, some Republicans have tried to limit the rights of LGBTQ students and stop schools from doing things that help these students.
At least 18 states have passed laws that say transgender students can’t play sports or use bathrooms that match their gender identity. Last month, the administration of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed new rules for transgender students. One of these rules is that teachers must use the pronouns that go with the student’s assigned sex at birth instead of the student’s preferred pronouns.
Other states have tried to make it harder to talk about gender and sexuality in the classroom, which is the main goal of a new national bill that Republicans in Congress introduced last week. Some school districts, meanwhile, have quietly taken away LGBTQ-related books and told teachers to take down LGBTQ pride flags.
Advocates say that the new rules are making life tougher for many students.
This year, Alabama passed a number of anti-LGBTQ laws. Dr. Ladinsky said that some of her transgender patients have stopped going to the bathroom at school because they can’t use the ones they want to. She also heard from teachers whose LGBTQ clubs had been shut down, likely because of pressure from school administrators. (In April, Dr. Ladinsky joined a legal challenge against a new law in Alabama that would make it illegal for minors to get medical care that helps them be who they want to be. A judge has stopped the law from going into effect for now.)
Tati, a high school student in Texas, said that some students see efforts to limit LGBTQ rights as an attack on them as people.
They said, “It just shows that they really don’t see you as a person.” “To them, you’re just something they want to get rid of.”
Keeping LGBTQ students safe
Advocates say that the new reports show how important it is to make schools safer for LGBTQ students right now.
Experts say schools can set up LGBTQ clubs, enforce anti-bullying policies that protect LGBTQ students, train staff on inclusive practices, and give transgender students access to facilities that match their gender identity. However, laws in some states might make it hard for schools to do all of these things.
Official from the CDC Kathleen Ethier said that policies that make schools more welcoming for LGBTQ students also help their peers.
“Something about making a school more welcoming” and getting rid of “toxic anti-LGBTQ speech” makes the school better for everyone, she said.
Tati, who has worked to make schools safer and improve students’ mental health as a youth advisor for the Intercultural Development Research Association, a Texas-based nonprofit that works for educational equity, said that there are many ways to do both. The problem is getting adults to do something.
Tati said, “People don’t understand that the culture won’t change unless everyone works for it.”