More and more children are struggling with mental health. Up to 1 in 5 children experience a mental health disorder, and suicide is the second leading cause of death in young people ages 10-24. For children or teens who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer (LGBTQ), the risks are even higher: Research has found that LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide much more frequently than their heterosexual peers. They’re also more likely to have attempted it.
While these statistics are sobering, there are ways to make a difference.
"Just because there are higher rates of mental health concerns among LGBTQ youth doesn't mean they can't be reduced," says Laura Kuper, Ph.D., APBB, a pediatric psychologist at Children's Health℠. "Parent and community support is so important and helpful."
Dr. Kuper explains why LGBTQ youth are at higher risk for mental health concerns and ways parents, loved ones, friends and community members can help.
Just because there are higher rates of mental health concerns among LGBTQ youth doesn't mean they can't be reduced. Parent and community support is so important and helpful.
What are unique mental health challenges for LGBTQ youth?
In a 2020 national study by The Trevor Project, LGBTQ teens said they deal with a variety of mental health difficulties:
- 68% reported symptoms of anxiety
- 55% had symptoms of depression
- 48% inflicted self-harm , such as cutting
- 40% considered suicide in the past year
Bullying and lack of support are often key contributors to the mental health difficulties LGBTQ youth experience.
Based on results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience:
- Verbal and physical harassment at school
- Online bullying
- Concerns about safety that interfere with school attendance
Dr. Kuper says lack of support and affirmation, particularly from parents or other family members, impacts mental health. Lack of support outside the family also has an impact.
"LGBTQ youth want to be seen and affirmed," Dr. Kuper says. "They may lack support because their family, peers, school or faith community aren't affirming, or because they don't feel comfortable talking about their identities and experiences with doctors or other professionals."
Because LGBTQ youth generally tend to be less involved in extracurricular activities and groups, they also miss out on supportive relationships that peers often develop outside of school.
What are signs a LGBTQ child needs help?
Dr. Kuper says to look for symptoms of depression in LGBTQ children and teens.
"Watch for any changes in behavior – such as isolating more and not talking as much," Dr. Kuper explains. "Dropping grades, decreased interest in activities they were involved in and struggling with energy level or motivation are all signs of depression." For teens in particular, irritability can also be a sign.
Signs of anxiety can signal a problem too. Watch for nervousness, having difficulty with friendships and avoiding social situations. Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches are common as well.
How can you support LGBTQ youth's mental health?
If an LGBTQ child or teen is part of your life, it can be scary and overwhelming to learn about what they may be dealing with. You want to support them, but may not know how.
Your acceptance and actions can make a difference. In fact, The Trevor Project study found that having support from family, friends or a special person reduced suicide attempts from 22% of youth with less support to 13%. Similarly, youth were half as likely to report attempting suicide if they had access to gender affirming clothing, a supportive school environment and people who used their chosen name and pronouns.
Dr. Kuper recommends six strategies to support the mental health of LGBTQ youth:
1. Educate yourself.
When you take steps to educate yourself, you send a powerful message to the child or teen that you want to understand. Parent-based organizations such as PFLAG and Gender Spectrum provide educational materials and support groups for parents of LGBTQ youth.
2. Open the door to communication and keep it open.
Let the child or teen know you're there to listen. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll open up right away. Check in with curiosity – without offering your thoughts or judgments – and put listening into practice. When youth are less concerned about other people's reactions, they are more comfortable about opening up.
"Listening and voicing support is powerful," Dr. Kuper says. "You may not be able to change certain circumstances, but just being there to listen means a lot."
3. Show your support.
Keep showing support and unconditional love, even when it may be hard to understand what LGBTQ youth are going though. Avoid dismissive comments (e.g., "it's just a phase") and avoid encouraging your child to keep their identity or relationships a secret. The adjustment to using a new name or pronoun is often difficult, but is a powerful way to demonstrate your support.
Be patient with yourself but also acknowledge your mistakes. "Be honest if you slip up and don't handle something the way you want to," Dr. Kuper says. Apologize and use your actions and words to let them know you're in their corner no matter what.
4. Help develop community.
Help your child develop connections with the LGBTQ community to find support. The Youth First program at the Resource Center hosts a number of activities and events specifically for LGBTQ youth in the North Texas area.
5. Be proactive at school.
Find supportive staff members and talk to them about how to make the school a safe space. Identify who your child can go to for support. Learn how the school deals with bullying and what steps you and your child can take when you have concerns. Familiarize yourself with the rights that LGBTQ youth have to express themselves at school. Many schools have groups called Gay Straight Alliances.
6. Seek help from a mental health professional.
According to The Trevor Project survey, 48% of LGBTQ youth reported wanting psychological or emotional counseling from a mental health professional but couldn't receive it.
If your child or a loved one is showing signs of depression, anxiety or suicide, a mental health professional can help. Reach out to your child’s pediatrician or your insurance company for a list of referrals. You can research these mental health providers online, and look at their training, background and specialty areas to see if they may be a good fit. Don’t hesitate to ask the provider questions before setting up the appointment. It is important to get a clear message from the mental health provider that they use an affirming approach.
Learn more about mental health resources
Children's Health offers comprehensive mental health resources – programs, treatments and professionals – to help families navigate mental health challenges they may face. Learn more about our mental health resources for kids and teens. You can also view additional resources for transgender youth and their families.