Across the U.S., anti-LGBTQ legislation — and especially anti-trans legislation — is limiting queer youth’s access to everything from bathrooms to gender-affirming surgery. A new national survey from the Trevor Project paints a stark picture of the mental-health toll of these forces: LGBTQ youth consider and attempt suicide at alarmingly high rates, and nearly one-third say their mental health was poor “most of the time or always” due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation.
“LGBTQ young people are not inherently prone to increased suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity, but rather they are placed at higher risk because of the mistreatment and stigmatization that they experience in society,” said Ronita Rath, the Trevor Project’s vice president of research.
In the past year, 41% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered suicide, according to the online survey of more than 28,000 queer young people between the ages of 13 to 24, conducted at the end of 2022. That rate is almost twice as high as that of the general population of high-school-aged youth, according to recently released 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourteen percent of LGBTQ youth attempted suicide in the past year, according to the Trevor survey.
The risk of suicide is even higher among transgender or nonbinary youth: 48% of trans women, 56% of trans men, and 48% of nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide. It’s also higher among people of color: 11% of white young queer people attempted suicide last year, while double that many Native/Indigenous young queer people did. At a time when anti-LGBTQ legislation is skyrocketing, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that just hearing about potential legislation banning discussion of LGBTQ people at school made their mental health “a lot worse.”
“While my colleagues and I have hypothesized that recent anti-LGBTQ legislation and the political rhetoric surrounding it is probably taking a toll on LGBTQ youth’s mental health, this survey data helps to clarify the magnitude of that toll,” Kirsty Clark, associate director of the Vanderbilt LGBTQ+ Policy Lab, wrote in an email to STAT. The report is the first large national survey assessing how queer youth felt the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation affected their mental health last year, she noted.
The Trevor Project data was clear about the support that queer youth need to improve their mental health. That includes access to therapy. While 81% of all LGBTQ young people wanted mental health care, over half of them were not able to get it.
But respect among family members and the community also makes a big difference. Half of trans and nonbinary youth said they live in a household where nobody respects their pronouns. They attempted suicide at almost twice the rate of young people who said all of the people they live with use the correct pronouns. Those without access to gender-neutral bathrooms at school, as well as access to binders, shapewear, and gender-affirming clothing, also attempted suicide at higher rates than those who did have access.
“Schools are a critical point of intervention,” said Marisa Marraccini, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Education who focuses on youth mental health in schools. Bullying, harassment, and discrimination happen at schools and can be stopped in schools.
At the same time, Marraccini notes that young people’s experiences at schools are the direct result of local, state, and national policies.
“[Bullying] happens in the context of a school environment, which happens in the context of a community environment, which happens in the context of state level policies and legislation,” she said. School leaders need to have the ability to create gender and sexuality alliances for students, address bullying, and create affirming spaces.
In areas where anti-LGBTQ or specifically anti-trans policies make schools less safe, communities outside of school often help to fill the gap.
Resource Center is a community center in Dallas for LGBTQ people that’s been around for 40 years and engages with hundreds of youth and families each year. When kids anywhere from 12 to 18 years old come to the center, they’re often quite shy at first. “Kids are not often used to having a space where they can bring 100% of their whole self,” said Aloe Johnson, the family and community empowerment services director at Resource Center.
The center has a youth suite stocked with fidget toys, weighted items, noise-canceling headphones, and a quiet room. More experienced kids will help guide others who are new to the space. “They get to utilize those objects and learn what sensory regulation and emotion regulation mean to them so they can take that same skill set with them into the school or into the home and learn how to enact that resiliency outside of our safe space,” Johnson said.
The center also hosts support groups for people of all different identities. When Texas lawmakers propose potential legislation like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” laws, kids can come to the Resource Center and talk about it. If kids are having trouble getting mental health services, there are counselors at the center.
“We try to do everything in a way which empowers the youth and family members to feel safer outside of our community space,” said Johnson.
As a youth leader with the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth, Thomas Morningstar, 18, knows what that empowerment can feel like. As part of their role, they often represent other young queer people and their needs, when speaking to adults with power. But the adults aren’t always listening. “In schools and government forums, not seeing any changes is really frustrating,” Morningstar said. “Speaking over us is not helpful.”
The one place they don’t have to worry about being heard is at BAGLY, a “youth-led, adult-supported” community center. It’s a safe space for Morningstar and their peers, away from the world where they get to establish their own identity however they want. It’s a place to hang out, but also a place to receive inclusive sex education, to talk to on-demand counselors without worrying about insurance, and more.
But not everyone has access to community centers like these. Experts say that state- and national-level policies have to start centering the needs of LGBTQ youth to improve mental health and prevent suicide. Signs of hope can make a big difference — while hearing about anti-LGBTQ legislation negatively impacted youth mental health, 79% of survey respondents said that hearing about potential state or local bans on conversation therapy made them feel a little or a lot better.
“It means I’m not alone,” Morningstar said about seeing support like Minnesota’s trans refuge bill, or when a Nebraska senator filibustered for weeks to protest over trans rights.
The bottom line is that LGBTQ youth have the same needs as any other young person. Said Johnson: “It’s an important time in kids’ lives. It’s absolutely a time where the messages that they hear matter, that the services that they receive matter.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. For TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.