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LGBTQ+ students need our help

Provide intersectional mental health services to better meet their complex needs

February 26, 2024, By Matt Mustard, Senior Director, Student Success

Content warning: this post discusses suicide.

In recent months, the well-being of our LGBTQ+ students has only become more concerning. Given that headlines continue to reflect sharpening stances and more hateful rhetoric from policymakers and members of the community, we’ve got a lot of ground to regain with this (now even more) vulnerable population.

Even if the local or national climates were more in line with how we’d ideally operate on campus, we have years of data reflecting the disconnect between those who need help and those who receive help. As we welcome new students to our campuses each semester, we must actively reorient ourselves to address this issue and properly support our LGBTQ+ students.

Provide culturally competent mental health services to attract and retain LGBTQ+ students

Perceived safety and acceptance impact our LGBTQ+ students’ decisions in higher education as early as the application. LGBTQ+ youth are approximately four times more inclined than their heterosexual peers to select a school far from their home, possibly to seek greater physical or identity-based security. The same survey goes on to share what may be causing this trend: 60% of LGBTQ+ youth felt that their home environment was not accepting of their identity, often outright rejecting or refusing to acknowledge their identity. Additionally, less than 33% of our transgender students report their homes to be gender-affirming.

  • 4x

    LGBTQ+ youth are approximately four times more inclined than their heterosexual peers to select a school far from their home

  • 60%

    of LGBTQ+ youth felt that their home environment was not accepting of their identity

  • Less than 33%

    of our transgender students report their homes to be gender-affirming

I couldn’t help but recall my own desire to start anew and be myself in a safe space outside the communities I was surrounded by in the south. Just being on campus is not the solution, even as we think about our strategies in a post-COVID world. No matter the campus or reason for enrolling, one of the more alarming facts for me is our LGBTQ+ students are more than twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression than their heterosexual counterparts.

It is important to note that depression and suicidal ideation are not tied to a person’s orientation and identity but rather, how they are mistreated or stigmatized in society. This is in part the reason why many LGBTQ+ youth do not seek help, or in some cases, it is not offered to them; the availability of culturally competent practitioners—defined by both the understanding and application of an intersectional approach to identity—can be the limiter as well.

To provide personal context: when I first engaged with a therapist the assumption was, “you’re anxious because you’re gay.” But I happened to be a gay teen who was anxious about any number of other things in my life unrelated to that element of my identity and didn’t stay in therapy long as a result of not feeling understood.

The urgency of appropriate support for LGBTQ+ students

As we shift towards prevention and treatment, the data underscores the need for accessible services customized to the unique challenges within our LGBTQ+ community, with a particular emphasis on LGBTQ+ students of color; A 2020 study revealed that Latinx and Asian American/Pacific Islander LGBTQ+ youth were 40% more likely to have unmet mental health needs compared to non-Hispanic white LGBTQ+ youth. Similarly, Black youth were found to be 30% more likely to have unmet mental health needs.

Barriers to help-seeking include concerns about being outed, assumptions of not being understood, and practitioners overly focusing on LGBTQ+ identity. For transgender students, there’s a concern that LGBTQ+ counselors may only be adept at assisting LGB individuals. The intersectionality of mental health needs within each racial or ethnic group of our LGBTQ+ students adds complexity. Every layer of identity introduces intricacy to the services we provide, necessitating tailored approaches for each student’s unique needs.

The barriers our students feel or that we create become even more worrisome when juxtaposed with the alarming fact that suicide is not only the second leading cause of death among college students but also ranks as the top cause of death within the entire LGBTQ+ community. Addressing the concern that we “only know how to properly help LGB” (though the statistics in this blog would challenge even that) becomes a must when we sit with the fact that nearly one in five transgender and nonbinary youth has made at least one suicide attempt.

Amid this bleak landscape, there’s a glimmer of hope: the undeniable power of culturally competent mental health services.

  • 84%

    LGBTQ+ college students who utilized campus counseling services were 84% less likely to have attempted suicide in the past year

This isn’t solely a challenge for counseling centers or a problem they can solve. We’re aware that counseling centers are already stretched beyond capacity, and the well-being of our students is the collective responsibility of the entire campus.

Overcoming the stigma surrounding help-seeking, addressing LGBTQ+ identities, and acknowledging the various identities our LGBTQ+ students carry should be a shared commitment for everyone. As student success relies on collaboration across the entire campus community, all staff members need to take ownership of the eight dimensions of wellness of all students to ensure they are relevant and safe for all students to consume.

4 ways campus leaders can drive effective change for LGBTQ+ students

  1. Ask the questions

    What do you know about your campus climate towards any or all of your students’ identities?

  2. Examine your processes and policies

    What do your policies promote or prevent when it comes to acceptance and access?

  3. Train the campus community

    For staff and students alike, gatekeeper trainings can and will save lives.

  4. Learn more

    By the time of this blog’s publication, new challenges will arise. New prohibitions or policies will limit our LGBTQ+ students’ affiliation to our campuses unless we grow in our understanding and resourcing—so our students do not become a statistic as well.

Matt Mustard

Senior Director, Student Success

Read Bio

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