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Race & Equity

In NC and elsewhere, rates of depression, anxiety and suicide increase among LGBTQ youth

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Gracyn Doctor
/
WFAE
Stefon Lovely

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For Stefon Lovely, of Charlotte, getting his mental health together has been an up and down battle. Being 22 brings its own challenges. But add on being Black, transgender, and then a global pandemic, and your challenges greatly increase.

“I had so many things planned for 2020 and COVID hit, and I had to just chop it all and then figure out what I was going to do,” Lovely said. “And that was just very, very hard. For a person of color that's queer, we don't have extra funds because we barely get the hours that we need or, you know, feel comfortable at a job that’s using my correct name and pronouns.”

According to the Trevor Project’s 2021 report on LGBTQ youth mental health, 62% of 13- to-24-year-olds reported symptoms of depression, with 2 out of 3 identifying as transgender or nonbinary.

Prior to the pandemic, Lovely’s mental health was in a better place. But after losing his job and his apartment at the beginning of the pandemic, his mental health began to spiral. For a brief moment, he stayed in a shelter before being placed in a duplex on Beatties Ford Road.

“I had plenty of anxiety, and I say plenty. I probably was at a 10 every day,” he said. “My anxiety medicine, I was eating through it. Other special medicines, eating through that too. It was at the point where I was like, ‘OK, I need to get into a better environment where the biggest thing about me isn't something I really need to hide.’”

But Lovely’s struggles didn’t start during the pandemic. They go back to when he was 14 and came out as bisexual to his parents.

“My mom has been the biggest person to hold me back from certain things. I had to force her to let me go to therapy, not only for me having depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, me just being trans,” Lovely said. “I didn't bring that up. I just brought up me having anxiety and depression, and me trying to kill myself is the only thing that opened her and my dad's eyes because they were like, ‘Well, you have everything you need. Why are you depressed?’”

For many LGBTQ youths, this is their reality: parents, family members, or a community who is unsupportive and may have no desire to understand. The mental health report by the Trevor Project found that 1 in 3 LGBTQ youth reported living in a home that’s affirming.

And It’s even more challenging for transgender and nonbinary youth and LGBTQ youth of color. That same report found that 23% of LGBTQ youth who attempted suicide and half of all LGBTQ youth of color reported discrimination based on their race or ethnicity.

LGBTQ youths of color also attempted suicide at higher rates than white youths. Twenty-four percent were discriminated against based on their gender identity.

Dana Cea, a clinical therapist, says lack of support is one of the biggest leaders to higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicide or suicidal ideation in LGBTQ youths.

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Gracyn Doctor
Dana Cea (she/her) is a clinical therapist who advocates for mental health, suicide prevention and the LGBTQ community.

“There are additional layers of how a group is marginalized,” she said. “If they are being rejected because of their race and ethnicity experiences, that's additional rejection. That's additional trauma that they're experiencing.”

In 2019, NC Healthy Schools surveyed over 3,000 young people in the state to get a sense of their mental health. They found that 22% of gay, lesbian or bisexual youths attempted suicide that year. They also made a plan for suicide at three times the rate of heterosexual youths.

“What really stood out to me is that for the gay, lesbian or bisexual high school students, they made a suicide attempt during the past 12 months that resulted in an injury needing treatment by a medical professional at 4 1/2 times the rate of their heterosexual peers,” Cea said.

She said therapy is a great tool for receiving needed help. But sometimes getting it can be extremely difficult, especially for a young person who has to rely on their parent’s health insurance. But she says social support can greatly help and is actually key to preventing suicide.

“We know having at least one supporting adult can decrease the risk of suicide and acting on thoughts of suicide,” she said. “Specifically for the transgender, gender non-binary youth, by respecting their pronouns and their names, as well as supporting them in changing legal documents, this is associated with lower rates of attempting suicide.”

In schools, Cea says having a Gay-Straight Alliance, a peer-led, teacher-supported discussion group, is a great way to provide support for young people outside their homes. Teachers can use affirming and gender-neutral language, display affirming visuals like flags and stickers and share or display their own pronouns. She says it’s also important to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis and to nott be afraid to directly talk to people and connect them to resources.

Additionally, Rebby Kern of Equality NC says we also have to believe what kids tell us.

“The number of kids that say, ‘I try to tell somebody, and they pushed it off,’ or ‘I try to talk about it and they didn't understand my identity,’ it adds so much more stress to an already stressful moment of folks coming out and the bias that still shows up in those moments,” Kern said.

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Daniel Sannito
Rebby Kern (they/them/theirs) is the director of education policy at EqualityNC.

Kern says healthcare providers also have to reflect the people in the community. But they say it’s policy that’s a key factor in improving LGBTQ youths' mental health since it shows up in every setting.

“We need to have more district by district and statewide policies that are including our identities, not just barring discrimination, but nurturing,” Kern said. “When we talk about what heals mental health, acceptance is the middle marker. Just accepting somebody is the bare minimum that you can do.”

In Charlotte, there’s Time Out Youth for LGBTQ people under 20 seeking support, housing, therapy or just a place to hang out. The center also provides toiletry items, laundry and storage facilities and a food pantry. For more information, visit TimeOutYouth.org.

Additional Resources for Those Who Need Help

Transcend CLT provides support and advocates for transgender and gender-expansive communities in North Carolina and South Carolina. The organization provides mental health and social support services as well as free, gender-affirming clothing, wigs and specialty items.

The Charlotte Transgender Healthcare Group is a group of health care providers in the area that provide services to transgender and gender-diverse communities.

Q Notes Carolinas is an LGBTQ publication that provides information on community resources and articles on topics that may be helpful to people in the LGBTQ community.

Safe Schools NC connects students, parents, teachers and anyone in the school system to resources that will help them feel safe and supported at school or provide that support to others.

NAMI Charlotte helps anyone experiencing a mental health crisis receive the care they need. The organization also has resources and educational material for anyone who may need it.

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