By Clinton Anderson, PhD (Director, APA Office on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns) & Lacey Rosenbaum, MEd (Director, APA Safe and Supportive Schools Project)
On August 11, 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of the first national study of sexual minority high school students: “Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Related Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12 – United States and Selected Sites, 2015.”
This is the first nationally representative data on a wide range of risks among lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) students, and it was made possible by CDC adding questions to the 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which is conducted biannually among students in grades 9-12 in high schools.
What does this new research tell us?
LGB students experience much higher levels of physical and sexual violence and bullying compared to their heterosexual peers:
LGB high school students are more likely to report being forced to have sex (18% vs. 5%),
to experience sexual dating violence (23% vs. 9%),
to experience physical dating violence (18% vs. 8%),
and to be bullied at school or online (at school: 34% vs. 19%; online: 28% vs. 14%).
LGB students are at increased risk for suicide:
More than 40% of LGB students reported seriously considering and roughly 30% reported attempting suicide in the last year.
60% of LGB youth reported having been so sad or hopeless they stopped doing some usual activities.
More than 10% reported having missed school because of safety concerns.
LGB students were up to 5 times more likely than other students to report using several illegal drugs.
These results confirm the need for school-based interventions that APA called for in its Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in Children and Adolescents in Schools.
What about transgender students?
The 2015 results include no findings on transgender students. To date, federal officials have not been able to devise scientifically sound gender identity questions for inclusion in the YRBS. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes this research challenge and seeks to address it in its federal sexual orientation and gender identity data collection plans. APA in its Resolution supports the validation of gender identity measures to better understand the experiences of transgender and gender diverse students and calls for schools to create supportive environments for these students.
What does other research on LGB youth say?
Other research points to a number of shared risk factors for violence, which may affect LGB youth:
Social isolation and lack of social support;
Poor parent-child relationships (lack of parental caring and support);
History of violent victimization (violence makes one vulnerable to more violence);
Perceived by others as not masculine or feminine enough.
So, what works to protect LGB youth?
There is no simple solution to these dangerous intersections of risks, but research has identified shared protective factors that can help young people at the individual, family, and community levels.
Individual-level protective factors include helping young people develop problem-solving and coping skills and encouraging bystander interventions.
Family-level protective factors include family support and connectedness, connection to other caring adults, connection to and commitment to school and peers.
Community-level protective factors include community support and connectedness and access to mental health and substance abuse services.
All of us, including parents, schools and communities, can and must take action to ensure gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth survive and thrive. APA’s Respect Workshop, developed with CDC support, provides school counselors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers with the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to make schools safe and supportive for LGB students.
What can we all do?
Professionals and parents can:
Work with schools to ensure comprehensive, community-wide support systems that reduce risk and promote protective factors for LGB youth.
Work to support and encourage parents to foster resiliency in their children by providing strong family support and teaching all children nonviolent problem solving skills.
Build environments that provide safety and connectedness for all students, including gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth.
Adopt policies and practices to reduce discrimination and forms of victimization that contribute to vulnerability and thereby reduce stressors for LGB youth.
Connectedness is key
At the end of the day, making sure that LGB youth feel connected – to parents, to peers, to teachers, and to schools and other community organizations – is key to protecting their health. Students are more likely to thrive in their schools and communities if they know they matter – if they know the adults, teachers, and friends in their lives care about their safety and success.
For more info, check out APA’s Safe and Supportive Schools Project.
Image source: Flickr user ankxt via Creative Commons
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