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Advocates say Connecticut needs more resources as LGBTQ+ youth struggle with mental health

Journal Inquirer - 5/27/2024

May 27—A lack of resources and the added anxiety of youths questioning their sexuality and gender identity while also figuring out how to socialize and make friends is harming LGBTQ+ youth's mental health, organizations said.

Many LGBTQ+ youth are growing up in a constant state of flight or fight, especially if they are not out to their families and friends, said Mel Cordner, founder and executive director of Q+, a community-based nonprofit that started as a way to fill the gaps organizers saw in queer youth programming across Connecticut.

"If we weren't all anxious about being outed and anxious about these resources turning around and causing us more harm, then we wouldn't be in a place where anxiety and depression are so likely to happen," Cordner said. "We're not anxious and depressed because we're queer. We're anxious and depressed because being queer automatically makes us less accepted and gives us less access."

Nationally, an estimated 41 percent of LGBTQ+ young people ages 13 to 24 seriously considered attempting suicide in 2022, according to the latest data from the Trevor Project published this month. Higher rates were reported among young people who are transgender, nonbinary and people of color.

The Trevor Project found that LGBTQ+ youth are experience high rates of bullying and discrimination based on their identity. Youths also experience a lack of access to mental health and support services.

Cordner said the high rates of mental health issues are often misinterpreted as a negative commentary on the mental and emotional ability of LGBTQ+ people. In reality, there are many life and societal circumstances that queer people and youths experience that are impacting mental health outcomes.

In Connecticut, advocates say many of the issues and systems that impact the mental health of queer youth are local and depend on what municipality you live in, what school you go to and what resources are available.

Cordner said the cultural inconsistency between the towns makes it difficult to consider the state a haven for all. They said the Nex Benedict story was tough because some youths in Connecticut has similar experiences. Benedict was a 16-year-old non-binary student in Oklahoma who died the day after a physical altercation in a girls' restroom at school.

Queer youth experience similar social and hormonal challenges to straight adolescents, but their experiences are often left out of the conversations, said Ta'LannaMonique Lawson-Dickerson, youth services coordinator at New Haven Pride Center.

Lawson-Dickerson said queer youth often don't have safe spaces to talk about how those hormonal changes are affecting them and their identity. They noted that sex education is mandatory at schools, but it doesn't typically normalize queerness and the exploration of gender identity. As a result, youths may feel othered since what they are experiencing is not part of the normal conversation.

There are also a lot of intersections that are contributing to the mental health crisis among youths, regardless of sexuality or gender expression.

Lawson-Dickerson said many queer youth, especially from communities of color, are facing other social determinants that impact their mental health in addition to the regular pressures of being a teenager. They said this could include access to health care, racial discrimination, cultural acceptance and wealth disparities. COVID-19 and the isolation that came with it also contributed to worsening mental health and behavioral issues among all youths.

"We separate queer youth from youth, and that is a part of the problem because queer youth are regular, everyday young people. They feel the same, they want the same things and they want to be visible," Lawson-Dickerson said.

To 18-year-old Finley Frey, of Fairfield, being a teenager "sucks" because there's often a pressure to figure out their identity quickly and find a place in society. This pressure is heightened when the youth is part of a marginalized community.

Frey said they tell people they introduce themselves as queer and non-binary when asked but don't necessarily identify with any label. They said they started questioning their identity in eighth grade as a result of puberty shoving gender in their face through physical changes.

"You have to figure out your identity right now and you have to figure it out exactly," they said. "It's just the pressure to know is pretty high and being OK with not having a label took so long."

Resources sparse

Frey is interning at the New Haven Pride Center for the next few weeks. They said they wanted to work at the center because of its work with the queer community and a desire to meet and help others actively.

"It's so amazing to just have a group of exclusively queer people, because I've literally never experienced that in my life," they said.

Studies show youths are less likely to attempt suicide. When youths have access to queer and gender-affirming spaces

In Connecticut, advocates say there are not enough LGBTQ+ youth resources available to address the growing demand for services and programs.

Lawson-Dickerson said there are only two pride community centers in the state, including the New Haven Pride Center. As a result, the limited resources are stretched thin. Many of the nonprofits working for the LGBTQ+ community are also siloed in the urban centers and often work in competition even though they have the same goal.

Connecticut is also growing in its diversity as more immigrants move here. Lawson-Dickerson said queer organizations have to grow in similar directions to ensure their programs and resources are available to the diverse population in multiple languages. They also said there's a need for more safe spaces created by and for queer people of color.

"When we fully talk about the wholeness of a human, especially a young person, then that's when we talk about their mental health because we can't create the space for their queerness without making safe space for all of the ways that they show up into the space," they said.

There's also a lack of medical providers across Connecticut who are trained or have experience working with the LGBTQ+ community, said David Barringer, integrated care supervisor for the Family Health & Wellness Center at Wheeler Clinic. He said this adds to mistrust and leaves youths needing their needs addressed.

An estimated 56 percent of queer youth nationally who wanted mental health care were not able to get it, according to the Trevor Project. Participants reported cost, not wanting to ask for caregiver's permission and fear of speaking about their problems were some of the reasons they couldn't get care.

In Connecticut, Barringer said the providers who are trained are typically based in urban cities and have extensive waitlists. However, access to mental health care for youths still hinges on whether or not the youth is out to their family.

"A lot of times it starts with their parents helping them with insurance, services, getting to services, finding providers," he said. "Teens, in particular, feel trapped. They're recognizing that they need the treatment but don't necessarily feel that they can ask for it."

'Gray' guidelines

State guidelines exist for teachers and staff working with LGBTQ+ youth at schools; however, how well schools adhere to those standards varies, Cordner said.

Tolland Board of Education is developing a trans student policy to support its students in the wake of anti-LGBTQ+ incidents. New Britain passed its trans student policy in 2015 and Wallingford passed one in 2018. Hartford and New Haven approved policies in 2023.

Meanwhile, an author canceled appearances at Fairfield elementary schools to discuss his recent book in response to parents' concerns over the book's queer and gender noncomforming characters.

Cordner said some state guidelines have loopholes that can harm students, such as the anonymous bullying reporting system. Although submitting an anonymous bullying incident report is allowed, state law says it must be reviewed, but no disciplinary action can be taken solely on that report.

Cordner said this alienates LGBTQ+ students who are being bullied since many of their reports are anonymous. They said typically, the first step in a bullying investigation is calling home, which for LGBQT+ students potentially means being outed to their families to ensure their case is investigated. They said being outed this way may also place a bigger target on their backs at school.

They said the guidelines were recently updated, but feel they are now support LGBTQ+ students less as each school can interpret the updated rules differently. They added no statewide resource is working to keep schools accountable and ensure policies are enforced.

"We have a great policy on paper, but when you actually try to put that in practice, it's dangerous for kids either way, and it's not a resource at that point," Cordner said.

National discourse

As more anti-LGBTQ legislation is passed throughout the nation, Barringer said queer youths may experience a sense of fear and apprehension to coming out even if they live in a state that is "safe."

The American Civil Liberties Union reports it's tracking more than 480 anti-LGBTQ+ proposed bills in state legislatures nationwide, with much of the legislation targeting trans youth participation in sports, medical care access and forced outings in schools.

Nearly one in three LGBTQ+ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ+ policies and legislation, according to the Trevor Project.

Barringer said the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation also emboldens bullies while social media provides them a new platform to continue harassing queer students.

Frey will attend the University of Toronto after graduating in a few weeks. In addition to the normal college things, they said they're excited to spend time not worrying about their rights being repealed as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

"I am privileged in a way to be living in Connecticut where it's not that bad," they said. "I don't have to see all of it with my own eyes, but it's really scary. I try not to think about it too much, honestly."

Cordner added Q+ is working with state agencies and other organizations to create better resources for queer youth in Connecticut, but "it's never fast enough." So, taking the time to listen to what queer youth say and affirm their feelings is crucial to ensure they feel supported as more resources are developed.

"Having an adult who just hears the story all the way through is going to make a difference because all of a sudden, this kid is not alone," they said.

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