A Safe Space: The Role of Schools in Supporting the Mental Health of LGBTQ Students

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The LGBTQ youth mental health statistics are startling. While suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 34, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ+) youth are at significantly increased risk, and are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. Rates of LGTBQ depression are staggering. The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide each year in the United States — and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds. 48% of LGBTQ youth reported they wanted counseling from a mental health professional but were unable to receive it in the past year. 

Every May and June we recognize, honor, and celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month (May) and LGBTQ+ Pride Month (June), giving us the perfect opportunity to reflect on LGBTQ issues in society and education and the current state of mental health in LGBTQ youth so we can open a dialog about how to support LGTBQ youth as educators and allies.  

The Impact of Feeling Safe

There is so much more to school than just academics. Along with English and math, students are learning important social and soft skills that will help them navigate life after graduation. It’s imperative that the school environment be a safe space, where all students can interact and be their authentic selves. If a child doesn’t feel safe at school, learning can’t be a priority, which has long-term impacts on their academic, emotional, and social development.  

LGBTQ youth who have at least one accepting adult in their lives are 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt. A recent study of California students found that if LGBTQ students experienced the same levels of support and safety at school as cisgendered and straight students, LGBTQ issues in schools and disparities in academic performance would disappear or greatly diminish. 

We need to lift LGBTQ barriers and be better in supporting LGBTQ students in schools. Supporting LGBTQ acceptance in schools starts by creating a safe, supportive school environment for all students. Schools also need to invest in counselors trained in counseling LGBTQ youth that can guide them to mental health services.  

Here are five ways to address some of the problems LGBTQ youth face in school and how schools can create a safe, inclusive environment for LGBTQ students to improve their mental wellbeing.

1. Representation Matters

So many LGBTQ problems in school start because students don’t feel like they fit in – that they are “different” from everybody else, which has a significant negative impact on their mental health. It makes a difference when a student sees adults in their lives that are like them. It helps them know that they aren’t alone, and that they too can find happiness and thrive.  

I encourage teachers to be role models, which is so beneficial for LGBTQ students and others as it shows all students that they don’t have to be afraid to show their true, authentic selves.  

Being fearless about who we are as adults can save lives. I will continue to make sure students know that I am proud of who I am as a lesbian and also as a wife, mom, educator, and Taylor Swift fan! Showing people who we are gives them the chance to connect on a different level and also to feel okay about sharing a part of themselves. 

2. Have a Zero Tolerance Policy for Bullying

There is still homophobia in schools, which often leads to bullying. LGBTQ students report higher rates of bullying – both in school and cyber bullying – than straight peers. They also have a higher rate of skipping school because of bullying and safety concerns. Bullying can have a serious negative impact on LGBTQ youth and mental health. Research shows that students who are bullied are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.  

At Connections Academy, nearly 30% of parents report that their child was previously bullied when they made the decision to enroll in our online school. I personally believe that number is probably higher than reported.  

Knowing this, our first priority is to encourage a solid connection between teachers and students. Our students feel valued because we offer equity for LGBTQ students, leveling the playing field. All of our students engage in continuous one-on-one conversations with adults in our schools. That bond strengthens over time. We also promote the idea of belonging to a community. Our students meet and connect with other students in online classes and extracurricular clubs and activities. Our LGBTQ students feel included and accepted because so many of their peers have also experienced the trauma of bullying.  

When it comes to stopping bullying in school, it comes down to a leadership issue. When a school administrator (or superintendent) sets the tone that there is zero tolerance for bullying – and backs those words up with action – people throughout the school will work towards that part of the school’s vision. The school administration can stop bullying where it starts to create a safe space for all students. 

3. Build an Inclusive Environment

Every student, regardless of race, sexual identity, gender identity, religious affiliation, ability, age, etc., needs to have a space where they feel included and feel like they belong. Making connections with others and being included in the classroom or after school activities plays a significant impact on a student’s mental health

At Connections Academy, we provide a LGBTQ inclusive education, giving students the space to gather and get to know one another, which helps in so many ways. Students learn that they are not alone and that they can depend on one another. Because so many students come to Connections Academy after feeling like they didn’t belong in their brick-and-mortar schools, our teachers and students go the extra mile to make all kids feel accepted and valued.  

The Gay Straight Alliance Network can offer support and guidance to anyone interested in starting a group at a brick-and-mortar school for LGBTQ students and their allies.   

We can change the world if we provide LGBTQ inclusion in schools, and create a space where students feel welcomed and valued.  

4. Use Preferred Pronouns

A person’s identity matters! It means something to students when you respect their pronoun choice and address them by their preferred name and pronoun – because that is their true, authentic selves that they are sharing with you. Respecting their decision is so easy, yet so impactful on their sense of self. Allowing students to display their preferred names and pronouns to their classmates is life changing because we are telling them that they can be who they are. Teachers who publish their own preferred pronouns offer the same inclusive signal as they do when they put a “safe space” sign in the classroom. 

5. Tap Into Federal Resources for Training, Additional Counselors

One of the few positive things coming out of the pandemic is that mental health is finally being openly discussed. It’s become okay to talk mental health issues you or your family may be experiencing. It’s no longer something to suffer with in silence.  

The FY2022 Spending Package approved by Congress included $1.28 billion to support school districts to provide a safe and healthy school environment and other things including technology in schools. $30 million of that is earmarked for school-based health centers. In addition, the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act funds grants for schools to hire more school counselors.   

Schools should strike while the iron is hot. Apply for grants, demand funding to grow your counseling team. Students need support when they are in crisis, and the right resources that can guide students to mental health services for LGBTQ youth should be easily available to help them through what they are experiencing.  

The Benefits of Online School for LGBTQ Students

Navigating school – especially during the middle and high school years – can be difficult for many students. Between the hormonal changes everyone goes through and just trying to find their way through the ever-changing social dynamics, schools often become a place students want to avoid.  

Online school offers a different solution. Students learn in the comfort of their own environment, where they feel safe and can let their authentic selves shine through. Connections Academy provides teachers with training on how to support LGBTQ youth and help them engage with their learning and peers. Our teachers get to really know each student and can serve as a mentor to help thenm not just academically, but in creating social connections by encouraging them to participate in online class discussions or to join extracurricular clubs and activities geared towards their interests.  

All schools need to be that safe space for LGBTQ students. Connections Academy has already laid the groundwork and welcomes all students to grow and thrive on their learning journey.  

If you are interested in learning more about Connections Academy to see if it is right for your student, please join one of our information sessions.  

About the Author

Professional headshot of Melissa Brown

Melissa Brown has been an educator for more than 30 years and currently works as a Director of Schools for Pearson Virtual School. Prior to working at Pearson Virtual Schools, Melissa served for 9 years as founding Executive Director of Indiana Connections Academy, a statewide virtual charter school.  In January 2019, Melissa was named School Leader of the Year by Pearson and she was selected to participate in the Executive Leadership Program for LGBTQ Leaders at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2019. In 2021, Melissa was named a “Champion of Equity” by the American Consortium for Equity in Education. Melissa has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ students and teachers and has presented at a number of conferences/workshops. Melissa and her wife, Kelly are parents to Ellie (age 18) and Foster (age 10).  

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