Depression is one of the most common mental disorders affecting individuals in the United States. According to a recent report by the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 17.3 million adults (7.1%) and 3.2 million adolescent aged 12-17 (13.3%) have experienced at least one depressive episode. Numerous studies show that depression affects LGBTQ individuals at higher rates than the heterosexual population. In a 2016-2017 survey by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 28% of LBGTQ youth, including 40% of transgender youth, said that they felt depressed most or all of the time during the previous 30 days compared to 12% of non-LGBTQ youth. According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 63% of gay, lesbian or bisexual youth reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared to 27.5% of heterosexual youth. Nearly half (47.5%) of LGB youth seriously considered attempting suicide compared to 13.3% of heterosexual youth and 23.5% of LGB youth attempted suicide as compared to 5.4% of heterosexual youth. Slightly more than half (53%) of transgender youth reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more over the past year, 44% seriously considered suicide, and 35% attempted suicide.
According to the CDC, stressors experienced by LGBT youth put them at greater risk for mental health problems than heterosexual youth. Stressors can come from many sources. For example, a hostile school environment including rejection, bullying, teasing, and physical violence puts LGBTQ youth at higher risk for mental health issues. Rejection and lack of acceptance by parents also increases risk. LGBTQ youth often feel that rejecting their gay or transgender identity is rejecting a core part of who they are as a person. Some stressors are unique to transgendered individuals. Not all youth experience rejection, but those who do are at greater risk for depressive symptoms, anxiety and suicide attempts. Strong family relationships, safe schools and support from caring adults can help protect LGBTQ youth from depression and suicidality.
There are several ways that family members (and other caring adults) can help LGBTQ youth:
Talk and listen in a way that helps youth feel loved and supported. Invite open discussion about sexual orientation or sexual identity. Have honest discussions about sex and how to avoid risky behaviors and unsafe situations. When they are ready to do so, help teens brainstorm on how to share information with others about their sexual orientation or identity.
Provide support by responding calmly when youth share their sexual orientation or sexual identity. Understand that teens often find it very stressful to share their sexual orientation or identity. Understand that individuals do not choose to be gay, bisexual or transgender. Use respectful language when discussing related issues. Become educated about issues impacting the LGBTQ community. Come to terms with one’s own feelings about a teen’s sexual orientation or identity.
Stay involved by knowing a teen’s friends and what the teen is doing. Include the teen in family events and activities. Help the teen develop a plan for managing challenges and staying safe.
Be proactive by accessing organizations and online resources. Build positive relationships with teachers and school personnel to ensure safe learning environments. If concerns about depression or other mental health issues arise, consult with a psychologist or other health professional for help. (Additional note: There is clear evidence that conversion therapy does not work and is harmful to LGBTQ individuals).
GLSEN – Gay Straight Education Network – www.glsen.org
Human Rights Campaign (HRC) – https://www.hrc.org
Indiana Youth Group – www.indianayouthgroup.org
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Project – https://www.thetrevorproject.org
Crisis hotline: 1-866-488-7386
Marshal, M. P., Dietz, L. J., Friedman, M. S., Stall, R., Smith, H. A., McGinley, J., . . . Brent, D. A. (2011). Suicidality and depression disparities between sexual minority and heterosexual youth: A meta-analytic review. J Adolesc Health, 49(2), 115-123. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.02.005 Reisner, S. L., Vetters, R., Leclerc, M., Zaslow, S., Wolfrum, S., Shumer, D., & Mimiaga, M. J. (2015).
Mental health of transgender youth in care at an adolescent urban community health center: A matched retrospective cohort study. J Adolesc Health, 56(3), 274-279. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.10.264