Political targeting, the pandemic exacerbate mental health struggles of LGBTQ youth

A survey from The Trevor Project found that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth across the U.S. seriously considered suicide last year. Fourteen percent attempted suicide and the rate was even higher among transgender and non-binary individuals. That builds on what the CDC found last month in its first national survey of high schoolers. The Trevor Project's Sam Ames joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Teenage suicide attempts have been increasing in the past few years, and the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis, especially among marginalized youth.

    And, as Stephanie Sy tells us, a new survey underscores just how much more serious the problem is for LGBTQ youth.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, the survey from The Trevor Project found that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth across the U.S. seriously considered suicide last year; 14 percent attempted suicide. And the rate was even higher among transgender and nonbinary individuals. One in five attempted suicide.

    That builds on what the Centers for Disease Control found last month in its first national survey of high schoolers. Students revealed that one in four LGBTQ teenagers attempted suicide in the first part of 2021, and nearly half had considered it.

    Sam Ames is the director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, and joins me now.

    Sam, thank you so much for your time.

    These are disturbing statistics. Your group does this survey every year. And we have been seeing the trend for a while now. What is striking to you about this most recent data?

  • Sam Ames, The Trevor Project:

    Yes, and thank you so much for having me.

    Unfortunately, what we are seeing across the board is an increase in suicide risk among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. Our 2022 national survey is one of the largest of its kind. We were able to talk to nearly 34,000 LGBTQ young people across the U.S., one of the most diverse surveys we have ever conducted.

    We were able to break the data down by sexual orientation, gender, identity, and race. And what we saw was that, comparing the data from the last three years of our annual reviews, reports of youth seriously considering suicide among the respondents are trending upwards.

    In three years, they have increased from 40 percent to 42 to 45. And while we can't attribute that to one particular thing, what we have seen is that there are enormous impacts of COVID-19 and this increasingly hostile political climate, particularly for LGBTQ youth.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Your survey also found that Black and brown young people, for example, indigenous young people, Middle Eastern and Black youth, that they had higher rates of attempting suicide, compared to their white counterparts.

    Why do you think that is?

  • Sam Ames:

    I think that, right now, we are seeing a particularly heated political climate that target some groups of people more than others.

    So, when we're seeing a discussion about so-called Critical Race Theory in schools, we're also seeing our young people react to that. When we're seeing this enormous wave of anti-LGBTQ youth legislation, most of which targets transgender and nonbinary youth, we're seeing that have a disproportionate impact.

    What we're seeing is that the targeting of distinct populations, especially among our youngest and most vulnerable, is having a reliable, predictable impact on real mental health and suicide risk.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Can you describe, Sam, in a little bit more detail what specific type of policies you're seeing state legislatures consider or paths that are either helping or hurting this group of young people when it comes to suicide risk, especially as we see state legislators taking different approaches to transgender and nonbinary youth at the highest risk, according to your most recent data?

  • Sam Ames:

    Yes.

    We are seeing a very broad array of legislation targeting LGBTQ youth, as I said, particularly transgender and nonbinary youth. These things cover every area of life, sports teams, classrooms, textbooks, health care, even bathrooms, just about every moment a young person is alive.

    The actual only thing they have in common with one another is their target, is the fact that this creates a pretty dependable wedge issue. When we talk to youth about the actual impact this is having on them, 93 percent of transgender youth say that they are worried about accessing gender-affirming health care; 91 percent are worried about whether they can leave the house and have a reliable bathroom to go to safely; 83 percent are worried about their ability to play sports.

    And one more number that really — that really strikes me is 85 percent. That's the number of transgender and nonbinary youth who report to us that they are following the news, that they are anything but politically apathetic, and that it is making them feel sad and angry and stressed, But it is also making them feel scared.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So it is that sense of affirmation you're describing both in the school environment and, I understand, also in the home of environment that, in your research, makes the difference for risk.

    There was a Stanford study, Sam, that showed recently that access to specifically gender-affirming hormone therapy in the teen years lowers risk of suicide for transgender youth. But you have more than a dozen states now trying to restrict access to that kind of medical care.

    How does that play into suicide risk for these young people?

  • Sam Ames:

    Yes, we know that access to medical care that affirms the — a young person's gender, whether through a medical transition or a social transition, is linked to a reduction in suicide attempts. Being on a sports team is linked to a reduction in suicide attempts. Having affirming textbooks is linked to a reduction in suicide attempts.

    While this survey is very hard to read in some ways, it also points to something that should, I think, give us a lot of hope, which is that, when LGBTQ youth are able to access adults who support and affirm them, their suicide risk goes down.

    That is particularly true for parents and families, for teachers, and for doctors, the exact people that these bills are trying to regulate into not supporting these youth.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sam Ames with The Trevor Project, thank you for joining the "NewsHour".

  • Sam Ames:

    Thank you.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And The Trevor Project operates a 24/7 crisis hot line for anyone considering self-harm. That is available at 866-488-7386 or by texting START to 678678.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you, Stephanie.

    And also tonight, we want you to know about a podcast that is especially relevant if you have teenagers in your life or if you are concerned about the mental health crisis affecting young people nationwide.

    The podcast "On Our Minds" is produced with and by teenagers in partnership with our Student Reporting Labs.

    Matt Suescun, "On Our Minds": As long as there's stress in the world, we're not going to get rid of anxiety anytime soon, but we can learn to live with it and deal with it in a healthy manner. I think that's the biggest takeaway from all of this.

  • Deesha, Student:

    Self-care isn't all bubble baths and candles. It's really like understanding of boundaries, going to sleep on time.

    Faiza Ashar, "On Our Minds": We have got an amazing season coming up, conversations about the fear of missing out.

  • Matt Suescun:

    The stress of competition, eating disorders, LGBTQ identity.

  • Faiza Ashar:

    Race, culture, friendship, music, so much to look forward to and so much to learn from.

  • Madison Beer, Student:

    People who are able to be vulnerable with one another and open up I think are the strongest people in the world.

  • Faiza Ashar:

    We're all going through something. And hearing stories about what other teens are going through and how they're getting better, it helps.

    From "PBS NewsHour"'s Student Reporting Labs…

  • Matt Suescun:

    … and WETA Well Beings…

  • Faiza Ashar:

    … this is "On Our Minds"…

  • Matt Suescun:

    … with Matt…

  • Faiza Ashar:

    … and Faiza.

  • Matt Suescun:

    A podcast about teenagers and mental health.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    "On Our Minds" recently launched its second season and you can listen to that right now wherever you get your podcasts.

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