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Thriving with Pride: Three Ways to Support LGBTQ+ Youth and Protect Against Suicidal Behavior

29 May 2020 — 4 min read

BY Russell Toomey & Amy Syvertsen

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My Year of Being Brave

May 29, 2020 - Happy Pride! The month of June was chosen as LGBTQ+ Pride to commemorate the uprising against police raids at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969. And, while most in-person Pride celebrations have been cancelled due to COVID-19, what hasn’t been cancelled is the opportunity to celebrate the incredible resilience and thriving among LGBTQ+ persons and communities, particularly youth.

As researchers who study positive youth development and suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth, we know that LGBTQ+ youth possess a deep well of strengths, and that they contribute to their communities in important ways. We also know that LGBTQ+ youth are more likely than their straight/heterosexual and cisgender peers to think about and attempt suicide. Our studies suggest that about four out of every 10 LGBTQ+ youth have tried to kill themselves (see Toomey et al., 2019; Toomey et al., 2018).

This higher rate of suicidal behavior among LGBTQ+ youth can largely be explained by their experience of “minority stress.” This is a form of stress that is experienced by LGBTQ+ people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression. This stress is experienced both in social situations (e.g., being called a derogatory slur, using the wrong pronouns to refer to someone) and by harmful policies that prohibit or restrict the civil liberties and rights of LGBTQ+ persons. We know that LGBTQ+ youth experience LGBTQ-related minority stress in nearly every context that structures their daily lives: at home, at school, with friends, and out in their communities.

And, yet, LGBTQ+ youth also possess a lot of strengths and supports that help them confront and cope with the stressors they experience. Friends, allies, and parenting adults can support LGBTQ+ youth thriving during Pride and beyond in these three important ways:

  1. Make LGBTQ+ youth feel seen and valued

There is no greater gift from one human to another than to be seen and valued. Pride is a time to celebrate the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations that exist. It’s also a time to give voice to the contributions LGBTQ+ people have made and to call attention to the injustice and hate these groups have experienced.

The ability to live authentically with family members and friends is important for LGBTQ+ youth, particularly during times of physical distancing when schools and access to LGBTQ+ clubs and resources centers may be limited. Lower rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts can be accomplished when LGBTQ+ youth believe that they are accepted by their family and friends and, when then others pay respect to the systemic inequities LGBTQ+ persons have experienced. Specific ways that you can make LGBTQ+ youth feel seen and valued include engaging LGBTQ+ youth in conversation about the pronouns you both use, and creating a welcoming space where they can openly and safely discuss issues related to their gender identity and/or sexual orientation.

  1. Show LGBTQ+ youth that you care about them

When we ask adolescents how adults make them feel cared for, their answers are as diverse as the kids themselves. But, there is one commonality: the acts are rarely grandiose gestures. It’s the small things that happen in their everyday exchanges that communicate care: remembering a detail from a previous conversation, asking questions and listening intently to their response, and having fun together.

LGBTQ+ youth are no different. Our research tells us that this kind of social support is critical for reducing suicidal thoughts and behaviors among LGBTQ+ youth. So, how can you show LGBTQ+ youth in your life that you care about them? Check on the LGBTQ+ youth in your life. Allow them to share their experiences. Be willing to learn from them. Follow their lead with their decisions about coming out. Visit Search Institute’s work on how to build strong developmental relationships with adolescents for additional ideas.

  1. Have their backs

Care, affirmation, and support are critical but not sufficient if the broader contexts that structure LGBTQ+ youths’ daily lives are filled with minority stress. Our research tells us that one of the most critical factors to prevent suicidal ideation and behavior among LGBTQ+ youth is to ensure that LGBTQ+ youth both are and feel safe in their families, schools, and communities. There are big and small ways that you can stand up for LGBTQ+ youth to show them that you have their back and to ensure they have safe spaces to thrive.

On an individual level, this includes saying something when you hear others making hateful or discriminatory comments or language; checking in frequently (and discretely) to see if LGBTQ+ youth feel safe in a space; and, if not, offering to join or escort them, and increasing your own awareness of the hate and threats LGBTQ+ persons experience in different contexts. 

On a bigger scale, there are efforts we can do collectively to show LGBTQ+ youth that we have their backs. One example is the comprehensive overhauling of schools to focus on inclusion. Building on decades of research with LGBTQ+ youth, GLSEN has identified four ways schools and districts can create safe learning environments for LGBTQ+ youth: implement inclusive school policies and procedures, adopt inclusive curriculum, train teachers on how to support the LGBTQ+ youth in their classrooms, and start (and support) student-led LGBTQ+ focused clubs. When these policies and practices exist, all students feel safer. Advocate for these policies and procedures to be implemented in their schools, extracurricular activities, and community spaces.

In closing, LGBTQ+ youth deserve to feel seen, loved, safe, and respected throughout the year, not just during LGBTQ+ Pride. To foster thriving, we must show up for LGBTQ+ youth, create spaces for them to live authentically without fear for their safety, and listen to them.

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