Author: Florence Almquist Checa
LGBTQ+ adolescents are most at risk for self harm and suicide. Some of the key factors that influence whether LGBTQ+ individuals will self harm are: homophobic abuse, social isolation, early identification as LGBTQ+, and conflict with family or peers about sexual identity. Many LGBTQ+ individuals don’t seek help and if they do, they often seek it from untraditional places, like the internet or LGBTQ+ safe spaces.
Oftentimes, it is misunderstood why many LGBTQ+ adolescents don’t seek in person help. People often think it is simply because there aren’t places that these teenagers can ask help from, but this isn’t the case as found in the research by McDermott et al in 2014. By analyzing online forums, they concluded that many LGBTQ+ youth seeking help for their depression and anxiety are transgressing “the intersecting social norms of adolescence, rationality and heterosexuality.” They are breaking the boundaries of being a “healthy minded”, independent citizen and of loving the “wrong” gender. Therefore, they are sometimes perceived as a threat to society by some individuals, which leads this kind of youth to internalize this homophobia into shame. Furthermore, many LGBTQ+ youth don’t want to be perceived as “weird” or “strange”, as dealing with mental health issues and homophobia is a lot to handle. This is why these youth often find comfort in online communities.
A question worth asking then is how we as a society and as psychologists can make these young people feel more understood, and what can we do to make them feel that they can trust counseling services offered. McDermott and his colleagues discovered that a large issue is that many current psychiatric models individualize the problem instead of also looking at the social, political, cultural and economic harmful structures that are at play that influence depression/anxiety/internalized homophobia. Stigma, discrimination, social justice, and social exclusion are all topics that are important in the conversation of mental health in order to have a richer understanding of a teenager’s individual case. However, they are sometimes lacking when an LGBTQ+ issue is being diagnosed with depression/anxiety. These kinds of mental issues are not isolated events, but rather a part of a larger phenomenon at play. As psychologists, it is important to look at the bigger picture to further understand an individual case.
It is especially hard for these LGBTQ+ youth to feel understood since there is oftentimes already so much societal judgement on teenage-hood itself. Adolescence is often seen as a linear time of biological and cognitive changes, when in fact it is a tumultuous time where normalcy is often challenged. McDermott and his team explain that adolescence is a “technology to produce a certain kind of rational individual”, pressuring teenagers to feel like they need to grow up and get a grasp on their emotions instead of analyzing them and building a better mental health. By analyzing online forums, McDermott and his colleagues found that some LGBTQ+ youth feel they have failed as citizens that should comply with social norms and hence why there is so much internalized guilt and shame.
When it comes to thinking about solutions to this issue, an obvious one seems to be LGBTQ+ sensitive services, but that still does not account for the social pressure that is burdening this youth. Perhaps the most long term efficient solution is to keep trying to change the social climate regarding LGBTQ+ individuals, so as not to make them feel “crazy” or “not acceptable.” The best way this can be done is by education and building tolerance and acceptance.
Some useful resources for LGBTQ+ individuals are the “It Gets Better” website which encourages these youth to share their stories and instill hope in other struggling teens. Another helpful resource is the “Q Card Project and Q Chat Space” where LGBTQ+ teens can seek psychological help, and ask questions amongst each other to create online support groups. Lastly, “The Trevor Project” is a national organization that helps with crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
McDermott E. (2014). Asking for help online: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans youth, self-harm and articulating the “failed” self. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, 19(6), 561–577. doi:10.1177/1363459314557967