IN THE FIRST half of 2022, some 20 states passed some form of anti-LGBTQ legislation, ranging from how gender identity is presented in schools to limiting transgender youth in sports and restricting medical treatments for transgender children. These new laws send dangerous and confusing messages to kids who live in any state that being different, whether in terms of gender identity or sexual orientation, or both, is wrong, shameful and intolerable.
In May, the Trevor Project released its annual survey on the mental state of LGBTQ youth, which found that 45 percent of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.
While that’s a shocking statistic and a reminder of how vulnerable this group is, what really caught my attention was a piece of the survey indicating LGBTQ youth are not inherently prone to suicide risk because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, but rather placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized in society.
I came out 20 years ago, when the landscape for LGBTQ youth was markedly different. It was tough back then, but if I were a teenager in today’s times, finding myself and facing these messages, I can imagine it would feel hurtful and very uncertain.
Yet, there is hope. How we support LGBTQ kids as a society, despite what lawmakers say or do, can make a difference. As a child psychiatrist, I’ve seen how kids who possess inward-facing self-acceptance can handle societal pressures with greater aplomb. That self-acceptance is deeply influenced by parents and caretakers who are often the center of the support system, even if a young person says or acts like they don’t care. They do.
The Trevor survey reinforces this. Family acceptance reduced suicidal thoughts in LGBTQ youth by more than 50 percent. And for trans kids, another study showed that acceptance of their chosen names dramatically reduces symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
I realize there are parents and other family members who will struggle with their child’s gender identity and sexual preferences. The best thing you can do is stay positive and show up. Minimizing judgment, keeping the door open to discussions and checking in with kids frequently can do wonders. Be open to kids using whatever terms they like to define themselves; those terms may stick or they may not. The pre-teens and teen years especially are about finding one’s own identity. There’s no shame in getting outside help for LGBTQ youth, whether it’s therapy, a support group or another adult outside the family to talk to.
At the end of the day, remember that the sexual orientation or gender identity of a child is only one factor in their life; it does not wholly define them. But greater family support can play a role in helping them handle adversity and give them hope for their future.
About the author
Michael Enenbach, MD, is the Clinical and Associate Medical Director of the Child Mind Institute’s San Francisco Bay Area practice. He is an expert in child and adolescent mental and behavioral health. He is also the president of Pride CAPA, the national organization of gay, lesbian, transgender and queer child psychiatrists.