Mental health supports reduce suicidality in LGBTQ+ students

LGBTQ+ students with access to mental health and LGBTQ+-specific services through their institution are significantly less likely to seriously consider or attempt suicide, according to a new Trevor Project study.

The organization, a nonprofit organization focused on LGBTQ+ youth suicide prevention, surveyed 33,993 LGBTQ+ students attending two-year institutions, four-year institutions and colleges. Participants were recruited through targeted advertisements on social media.

About a third of those surveyed said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 7 percent said they had attempted suicide during that time period. Both numbers are higher among students of color and those who identify as transgender or non-binary.

But access to mental health services or LGBTQ+ support in college reduced suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, the study found. While 46 percent of students without access to mental health services said they had seriously considered suicide and 22 percent said they had attempted suicide in the past year, those percentages were 32 percent and 6 percent, respectively, among students with access to such services.

Access to LGBTQ+-specific resources showed a similar benefit: 30 percent of students with access to college LGBTQ+ services had seriously considered suicide and 6 percent had attempted suicide, compared to 41 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of those without such access.

The researchers who conducted the study said they were not surprised by the findings. But they noted that the results show why it’s so vital for colleges and universities to invest in mental health and LGBTQ+ services.

“It lets colleges know how important these things are,” said Myeshia Price, director of research for the Trevor Project. “I think sometimes colleges have this reputation of ‘Of course we’re open and of course we’re affirming, of course we’re supportive of LGBTQ+ people,’ but I think it’s important that they do everything they can to show that , so young people don’t ask themselves if this is so.

The majority of LGBTQ+ students surveyed — 86 percent — reported that their college offered mental health services. However, some said they faced barriers to accessing these services: 33 percent reported they didn’t feel comfortable going, 29 percent said their campus mental health center had long waiting lists, and 17 percent expressed concerns about privacy.

Sixty-three percent of LGBTQ+ students reported that their university had some type of LGBTQ+-specific resources, such as an LGBTQ+ center, available to students.

The survey also found that 89 percent of respondents felt their school was accepting of LGBTQ+ people—meaning they answered “somewhat” or “a lot” to the question, “How accepting is your college/university of LGBTQ people?” (Other possible answers were “not at all” and “little”). That number is lower among students who report that their campus does not offer LGBTQ+-specific services, with 45 percent of this group saying their college does not accept LGBTQ+ students.

Shane Mendez Windmeier, executive director of Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization that aims to make college campuses safer for LGBTQ+ individuals, was surprised that so many students felt their school was accepting, noting that it typically ranged from institution to institution.

“Most LGBTQ students report that the climate—their feelings of belonging, safety, and inclusion—in college is better than what they experienced in high school. And there is evidence that overall campus climate has improved over the past 15 years,” Windmeier wrote in an email. “Yet this progress is not consistent across institutions. Reports of harassment and discrimination, particularly for transgender students, remain a problem at a time when student learning and persistence are central issues for higher education leaders.

Recently, Windmeier said, LGBTQ+ students have reported incidents of bullying in the classroom, as well as cyberbullying and racist and sexist language in conjunction with homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.

“Research on campus climate in general and LGBTQ climate specifically points to the negative effects of a hostile climate on student learning, college persistence, and mental health and wellness,” they said.

They suggested that the data may have been positively skewed because the Trevor Project used what is known as “snowball sampling,” a research technique that involves casting a wide net and hoping that the intended research target will respond.

According to Windmeier, this method is necessary when surveying LGBTQ+ people—they said there’s no good way to reach only people who identify as LGBTQ+—but it can lead to exaggerated results.

“It’s a constant challenge that we have because sometimes when you ask questions, you’re going to [only] get people willing to share, which could skew the results one way or the other,” they said Inside Higher Ed in an interview.

The Trevor Project’s Price acknowledged that the methodology may have its flaws, but said the findings still have merit.

“All research carries the potential for bias not only from study participants but also from things like the wording of the questions or the distribution of the study,” they said. “While there are ways to mitigate bias, there is no way to completely eliminate it from research. It may be just as likely that we oversample students who have negative experiences on campus and turn to online communities for validation and support. There’s no way to compensate for students’ positive experiences on campus in this analysis, because that’s exactly what we’re investigating. Different assessments of LGBTQ acceptance may garner different levels of approval and cannot be compared one-to-one.”

Overall, Windmeier agreed that the study was helpful, especially as a clarion call to administrators to begin or continue investing in support for LGBTQ+ students.

“Campuses that really take responsibility have support services for LGBTQ students, students there are not at as high a risk for suicidality and other forms of depression,” they said. “They will be able to get better grades; they will be able to succeed academically if they receive this support.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24/7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress or those around them with support, information and local resources. Dial 988 for help.

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