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Supporting LGBTQ+ and Black youth well-being

In March 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released results from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES). The survey found that “more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and nearly half of students felt persistently sad or hopeless.” While that’s probably not a surprise to teachers and parents, what’s less known are the disproportionate impacts to LGBTQ+ and Black youth — identities that are often marginalized.

Young person of color sits with a backpack in a posture of sadness, with head between arms.

This month, in observance of Juneteenth and Pride Month, we’re raising awareness of mental health issues faced by youth with marginalized identities, and we’re sharing strategies for supporting the young people in your life.

Develop awareness and understanding

According to the CDC ABES study:

  • Black students were most likely to report hunger.
  • More than one third of all U.S. high school students felt they had been treated badly or unfairly at school because of their race or ethnicity.
  • Students who reported racism were also more likely to experience poor mental health and less likely to feel connected to people at school.
  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were far more likely to report physical abuse.
  • Female students and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning (LGBQ) are experiencing disproportionate levels of poor mental health and suicide-related behaviors.

LGBTQ+ youth may struggle with stigma and shame. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), internalized shame can lead to “unhappiness, unhealthy relationships, substance abuse and other self-deprecating behavior.” Some LGBTQ+ youth may even be estranged from their families.

In addition to marginalization and the pandemic, recent legislation limiting discussions of sexual orientation and racism in schools has further impacted the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color.

It’s OK to ask for help

If you’re worried about a young person in your life, you may experience emotions like anxiety, fear, or powerlessness. But there are steps you can take.

  • Start by taking some slow, deep breaths. Practice simple acts of mindfulness. When you’re able to restore calm to your own sense of well-being, you’ll be more capable of helping others.
  • Recognize you have resources and support. It’s true that your young person may be struggling with mental health. What’s also true is that there are more resources and ways of getting help than ever before.
  • Have an honest conversation with your young person. Sometimes concerned adults feel that talking about tough issues will make the problem worse — it will not. Talking about the problem helps your young person know it’s OK to talk about it.

If your relationship with your young person has been strained, a conversation might be challenging. An EAP counselor can help you understand the dynamics involved and suggest strategies for navigating the situation.

Learn strategies for suicide prevention

According to the National LGBT Health Education Center, “suicide risk in LGBTQ people is thought to be highest during the teen years and early 20s.” The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry states that “Rates of suicide among Black youth have risen faster than in any other racial/ethnic group in the past two decades, with suicide rates in Black males 10–19 years-old increasing by 60%.”

If you’re concerned that a young person in your life might be thinking about suicide, Forefront Suicide Prevention at the University of Washington has five simple actions (LEARN) you can take:

  • Look for signs.
  • Empathize and listen.
  • Ask directly about suicide.
  • Reduce the dangers.
  • Next steps.

Get details on each of these steps on the Forefront website.

Cultivate belonging and allyship

As human beings, each of us need to feel connected and valued. We need to be able to be authentic about our identities with the people in our lives, and we need to belong. Lack of connection, identity, and belonging affects our well-being. Because LGBTQ+ and Black youth have identities that may be marginalized by their communities, they are more likely to experience disconnection and resulting mental health impacts.

The CDC ABES study found that connectedness is protective: “youth who felt more connected to people at their schools had better mental health; however, young people who experienced racism were less likely to benefit from this protection.”

Ricki Gibbs II, Ed.D., a Metro Nashville Public Schools principal, says, “Being an ally means recognizing when others are being oppressed and standing in solidarity with anyone who experiences oppression.” He gives the following suggestions for becoming an ally:

  • Stand up, even if you are nervous.
  • Be willing to challenge the status quo.
  • Hold your circle accountable.
  • Share the benefits of your privilege.

Visit the University of Pittsburg’s Institute for Learning website to read more about these strategies and real-world examples of them in practice.

Your actions make a difference

Educating yourself, talking to youth, asking for help, cultivating belonging and allyship — these are challenging and sometimes uncomfortable actions. They’re also actions that change the course of a teen or young adult’s life.

Washington State EAP. 1972–2022.

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The Washington State Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free, confidential program created to promote the health, safety and well-being of public service employees and their household adult family members. EAP provides counseling and other resources to support well-being, address workplace concerns, and help with legal and financial issues. Reach out to EAP online or call 877–313–4455. To find out if the Washington State EAP serves your agency or organization, contact your supervisor or human resources department.

Links to external websites are provided as a convenience. The Employee Assistance Program and the Department of Enterprise Services do not endorse the content, services, or viewpoints found at these external sites. Information is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the counsel or advice of a qualified health or legal professional. For further help, questions, or referral to community resources for specific problems or personal concerns, contact the EAP or other qualified professional.

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