Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and state laws are harming youth mental health, survey shows

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LGBTQ+ youth say state proposals limiting their rights in schools, sports and medical offices are negatively affecting their mental health, leaving them angry, sad and stressed, according to a new online survey released Thursday by Morning Consult and The Trevor Project , a youth LGBTQ+ crisis organization.

Researchers and advocates fear that if these policies go into effect, they would also limit resources and support systems for queer and trans youth to cope with deteriorating mental health.

“When I was growing up, we had a lot of anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, but it wasn’t so in your face,” said Austin Johnson, who teaches sociology at Kenyon College and studies LGBTQ+ health. “Lawmakers weren’t trying to pass bills so that I couldn’t talk to my teacher, talk to my counselor, talk to my parents. They weren’t criminalizing the authority figures and support systems in my life.

Of the 716 LGBTQ+ youth surveyed, from teens to young adults, who took part in the online survey last fall, 71 percent said that debates about state laws limiting the rights of LGBTQ+ youth have negatively impacted their mental health. 27% characterized the adverse effect as severe.

Outside experts researching the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth say these data are in line with growing evidence that anti-LGBTQ+ bills exacerbate the mental and emotional struggles of queer youth, particularly those living in states that propose laws that harm them or living in places without solid protections.

Ryan Watson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut who has studied the experiences and health disparities facing LGBTQ+ teens, isn’t surprised that LGBTQ+ youth say these proposed laws are worsening their mental health. Previous research has found that LGBTQ+ adults in states with the least legal protections have reported worsening mental health, and within schools, policies that offer protections to LGBTQ+ students may benefit their overall well-being. LGBTQ+ students living in states with fairness laws are also less likely to experience bullying.

For Watson, the new survey of 13-24-year-olds also sums up the current reality of LGBTQ+ rights: children are at the forefront of political struggle, instead of adults.

In several states, support systems in schools – which were already lacking for LGBTQ+ youth – they are under political duress. States are proposing more bills that would direct school employees to address students using pronouns that match their assigned gender at birth, effectively ordering the misgendering of trans or nonbinary children unless a parent provides written permission. There are also bills to limit what teachers can say in class about LGBTQ+ people and to require school employees to bring trans students to their parents.

“Lawmakers, politicians should be really aware that the laws they pass have an immediate and real impact on children’s lives,” Watson said. “All of these bills don’t pass, and in some states we know they may not, but just whether politicians will consider raising it has a serious impact on the happiness and bonds that kids have.”

Transgender and non-binary youth who responded to the online survey reported greater feelings of fear and alienation in the face of legislation that is, for the most part, aimed at limiting their rights, as opposed to the rights of LGBTQ+ youth in general.

A large majority — 86 percent — of trans and nonbinary youth surveyed said debates about state laws limiting LGBTQ+ rights for youth had negatively impacted their mental health. When asked about other effects of these policies, trans and nonbinary youth were more likely than queer cisgender youth to say they experienced more bullying in the past year because of these policies, although outside experts cautioned that direct causality was not can be demonstrated. Trans and non-binary youth were also more likely than queer cisgender youth to say that anti-LGBTQ+ policies made them feel less safe going to the doctor or hospital when sick.

The common theme of anti-trans law proposals is that they reduce the number of safe, affirmative spaces and the number of safe, affirmative people available to support trans and nonbinary youth, said Casey Pick, senior researcher for advocacy and government affairs at the Trevor Project. In addition to some trans youth who are more reluctant to seek health care after calls to ban gender-affirming care, so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws that prevent teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues prevent teachers from adopting positive measures to protect the mental health of queer students, she said.

Diego Sanchez, director of advocacy, policy and partnerships at PFLAG National, which advocates for LGBTQ+ families and allied parents, said adults who want to help LGBTQ+ youth in their lives should voice their feelings in response to anti- LGBTQ+, including anger – are valid.

“Make sure the kids know … that the feelings they’re having are affirmed, that they’re real feelings,” Sanchez said. Validating these feelings, especially when they’re part of a different experience than their siblings or friends, is important, she said, and so is conveying to LGBTQ+ youth that they deserve to thrive and live full lives, despite what legislation may impose on them. Touch.

For parents of LGBTQ+ youth looking for local links or resources, Sanchez recommended contacting local PFLAG chapters and checking out LGBTQ+ young adult books recommended by the American Library Association’s Rainbow Round Table. The Trevor Project also offers mental health resources, and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) website has state-level policy maps.

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