New study shines light on how to ‘make it better’ for queer youth

They don’t just need hope; they need community.

The Alliance of GLBTQ Youth marching in the 2016 Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
The Alliance of GLBTQ Youth marching in the 2016 Miami Beach Gay Pride parade. CREDIT: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

It’s not news that queer young people still experience various forms of bullying and rejection that can impair their mental health, but the research is still developing about how best to help them through those challenges. A new study from the University of Arizona, conducted in conjunction with the Family Acceptance Project, offers new insights as to what coping strategies help and which really don’t.

As it turns out, finding community with other queer youth is vitally important.

Researchers examined 245 lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) young adults’ experiences with coming out, how they navigated various forms of rejection from their family and community, and the strategies they employed to cope. The study breaks these strategies down into three categories:

  • LGBTQ-specific strategies, such as looking for more information on LGBTQ issues and getting involved with LGBTQ groups.
  • Alternative-seeking strategies, such as finding new friends or alternative living situations.
  • Cognitive strategies, such as imagining a better future for yourself, trying to put the stress out of your mind.

Of these three strategies, the study found that only the LGBTQ-specific strategies actually helped improve LGB young people’s mental health, resulting in fewer depressive symptoms and higher self-esteem. Both of the other strategies resulted in poorer mental health outcomes. The study found a correlation between these outcomes and the likelihood of staying in high school as well, meaning that how these young people cope can actually impact the entire rest of their lives.

Though the study did not specifically examine the experience of transgender young people, it seems likely they would respond in similar ways.

Lead researcher Russell Toomey told ThinkProgress over email that even though the study doesn’t explain why some coping mechanisms work better than others, “it is highly plausible that LGBT-specific strategies are associated with better health because it provides LGB youth with a sense of community or belonging.” Conversely, because these stressors are usually beyond the youths’ control, convincing themselves it’ll eventually get better could create “a sense of immediate helplessness” or lead them to ruminate on the problems, which can exacerbate the stress.

This obviously draws to mind the “It Gets Better” campaign, which Dan Savage started in 2010 in response to a spate of suicides across the country by queer kids who had experienced bullying. The campaign yielded thousands of testimonials from across the globe in which adult LGBTQ people discussed their own past hardships and encouraged young people to endure what they cannot escape. According to the study, telling young people just to hold out until their circumstances change doesn’t actually help their mental health. But Toomey said it’s not that simple.

“Making LGBT identities and experiences more prominent in the media and allowing folks to share their own stories is an important piece of community (perhaps, even related to the LGB-specific coping strategy that we identified in our study),” Toomey explained. He called the “It Gets Better” campaign “well-intentioned” and he believes many people benefited from “hearing messages of hope and resilience.”

Still, he thinks campaigns to make it better are just as — if not more — important. There are many ways to improve the situation for queer kids now by implementing programs in schools, such as creating gay-straight alliances (GSAs), for example. Queer students at schools with GSAs generally feel safer and experience less anti-LGBTQ victimization. Even if a student doesn’t participate in the club, its mere presence can help mitigate their depression and improve their future success in college. Toomey actually conducted the study that found that result, which is why he wasn’t surprised by the impact of LGBTQ-specific coping strategies found in the current study.

Likewise, there are many resources that can be made available to families to help repair relationships damaged or broken by rejection over a queer identity. The Family Acceptance Project, a partner on the study, has found in other studies that how families support and accept their queer kids is the biggest factor impacting those kids’ mental health outcomes. The organization has developed a trove of resources to help families reconcile a child coming out and mitigate that harm — including in ways that don’t require family members to immediately transform into the most enthusiastic PFLAG parents.

In addition to the many ways adults can help “make it better” for queer kids, Toomey noted that many of those kids aren’t waiting around for it to get better. “We also need to acknowledge that many LGBT youth are the agents creating change in their environments,” he said. “They are not waiting for a better life in adulthood.”

Toomey hopes school administrators, counselors, and teachers take his findings to heart. Since LGBTQ-specific coping strategies were associated with staying in school, it behooves districts to create more access to LGBTQ clubs and resources. Not coincidentally, multiple studies have also found that having a curriculum with LGBTQ-inclusive lessons also helps make schools safer and makes it more likely queer kids will stay in school and succeed later on.

The findings likewise have implications for how schools respond to anti-LGBTQ bullying. “Do they counsel the student into moving schools,” which would be an ineffective alternative-seeking strategy, “or do they proactively try to create safe and compassionate environments for all students?”

Toomey also hopes families appreciate the importance of making sure their queer kids have access to the kinds of resources that will help them engage in the kind of LGBTQ-specific strategies that the study found to be useful. “While not every community or school has a GSA or LGBT community center,” he said, “families could help connect their youth with online resources.”

The study appears in the latest edition of the Journal of Homosexuality.