June is National LGBTQ Pride month, so this is a great opportunity to learn more about how to care for and support youth who identify with this group. LGBTQ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or transsexual, queer or questioning (sometimes IA are added to the end standing for intersex and asexual). Because adolescents who have identified themselves as a member of a sexual minority group often experience greater disparities in mental health, substance abuse and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it is imperative to know how to support these kids and teens, and to enable them to achieve health and happiness.
Many young people are “coming out” at earlier ages than before because society has become more accepting and aware of people who do not fit into specific and traditional gender identity and sexual orientation categories. The reported rates of adults who identify as LGBTQ have increased from 3.5% in 2012 to 4.1% in 2016, and this is likely due to more personal comfort in sharing this information. In fact, due to the popularity and easy accessibility of online forums and social media, sometimes kids will come out to digital communities before sharing this information in person with family or friends. Regardless of how an individual chooses to share this part of his or her identity with family or friends, it is of utmost importance that they are met with support and love. That is not to say that this is always a quick and easy thing for families and friends to understand and accept, just as it was likely not an easy thing for the LGBTQ individual to understand, accept and share.
Members of a sexual minority group suffer from increased rates of depression and suicide above that of the general population; their risk of attempting suicide is about three times higher. They will often complain of feeling “different” from their friends or other kids at school and may feel as though they do not fit in. LGBTQ youth are frequently the target of bullying and violence. The national Youth Risk Behavior Survey done in 2015 by the CDC showed that, of LGB students surveyed, 34% were bullied on school property and 28% were bullied electronically, 10% were injured or threatened with a weapon on school property, 23% had experienced sexual dating violence in the previous year, 18% had experienced physical dating violence, and 18% had been forced to have sexual intercourse at some time in their lives. LGBTQ students also have higher rates of substance abuse, experiencing homelessness, sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Thankfully, there are ways to address and combat these health disparities. Pediatricians and other health care providers can help kids and their families get the supports they may need. In April 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Safe Schools for All Students Act, a comprehensive anti-bullying law that is inclusive of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Parents and families who understand that LGBTQ youth struggle above and beyond the regular difficulties of growing up, and who are willing to accept, support, love and encourage them can have a significant positive impact on that child’s health and well-being. This is still true even if family members do not completely understand or agree with what a child is experiencing or expressing. It is important to create safe spaces for open discussions with their kids and to be willing to just listen when they need to talk. Do not allow disparaging remarks to be said about LGBTQ people and never use the word “gay” as a derogatory term. Working with a therapist or licensed counselor may be beneficial for the individual who identifies as LGBTQ, as well as for their family.
A phenomenal resource from San Francisco State University is The Family Acceptance Project®, http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/. It is “a research, intervention, education and policy initiative that works to prevent health and mental health risks for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) children and youth, including suicide, homelessness and HIV – in the context of their families, cultures and faith communities. We use a research-based, culturally grounded approach to help ethnically, socially and religiously diverse families to support their LGBT children.” The Trevor Project, www.thetrevorproject.org, is a resource offering “accredited life-saving, life-affirming programs and services to LGBTQ youth that create safe, accepting and inclusive environments over the phone, online and through text,” and offers the only national 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention lifeline for LGBTQ young people under 25, available at 1-866-488-7386.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.