(Photo by Zackary Drucker for Broadly's Gender Spectrum Collection)
For many local high school students, life before the COVID-19 pandemic was already challenging, especially when it came to serious mental health issues, including worrying rates of suicidal ideation and crisis.
According to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) — a national assessment of health behaviors administered every two years by the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) to a random sample of high school students — the number of student respondents who had seriously considered (22%), planned (17%), and attempted (15%) suicide reached unprecedented highs during the 2018-19 school year.
For lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) high school students, these rates were particularly striking.
On average, LGB high school students in Philadelphia reported being three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to seriously consider, plan, attempt, and be treated for suicide. Nearly 50% of all LGB survey respondents seriously considered suicide during the 2018-19 school year, a 17% jump since the survey was last conducted in spring 2017, and more than 25% of all LGB survey respondents attempted suicide at least once in the 12 months prior.
Notably, this was the first time SDP asked a question about transgender identity on the YRBS; however, the sample of students identifying as transgender was too small to make any conclusive statements in the report. There is no specific question on the survey that asks about nonbinary or nonconforming identities.
Sadly, these unsettling mental health data are not unique to Philadelphia. According to a 2020 survey from The Trevor Project — a national organization focused on preventing suicide among LGB, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minority (LGBTQ+) young people — this issue is pervasive across the United States. Trevor Project’s 2020 survey of more than 40,000 racially and geographically diverse LGBTQ+ young people showed similar trends: 40% of LGBTQ youth and over 50% of transgender and nonbinary youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year.
SDP has started to organize around these issues, implementing a “Philly HopeLine” and virtual Family Academy for students and families in need of emotional support during this particularly challenging period of remote learning. The District is also now allowing students to self-identify and update their first names and pronouns in SDP’s systems without parental consent — a policy change driven by years of LGBTQ youth activism that is proven to improve mental health outcomes for sexual and gender minority students. Despite these notable advances, however, SDP and the City of Philadelphia must do more.
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- Youth advocates are calling for more accessible mental health resources, including peer support programs that offer employment, professional development, and training opportunities to young peer support specialists who have lived experience managing and overcoming mental health challenges. These programs can be embedded within SDP as well as external, community-based organizations that provide health and social services to young people.
- Systems across Philadelphia should collect data on gender identity and expression and recognize them as key variables in youth mental health, particularly for young people who identify as transgender and nonbinary. These data can be used to develop gender-based and trans-affirming suicide prevention and mental health programs that would begin to address the unacceptable health outcomes experienced by gender minority youth.
- Beyond mental health services and data collection, comprehensive sex education can be a critical tool in LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention by promoting self-acceptance, identity development, and healthy relationships. LGB high school students in Philadelphia report high rates of intimate partner violence (19%) and sexual assault (20%), yet are rarely exposed to curriculum that acknowledges these facts or the insidious nature of sexual and gender-based violence. For transgender and gender minority students, these rates are likely even higher.
COVID-19 poses complex concern for LGBTQ+ students who are already at the brink. Social isolation from affirming peers; increased time spent at home with unsupportive caregivers; and less direct, in-person exposure to teachers, school counselors, and staff who are trained in suicide prevention could exacerbate a problem already well beyond a tipping point.
Unless these trends and disparities are addressed quickly, the mental health emergency facing our local LGBTQ+ students could result in devastating consequences. We cannot lose sight of this problem as the school year unfolds.
If you or an LGBTQ+ young person you know is in crisis, The Trevor Project is available 24/7 by calling 1-866-488-7386 or texting “START” to 678-678. Young people, regardless of identity, can access 24/7 crisis support through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255 or texting “HOME” to 741-741.-30-
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