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Spotlight on Hope: LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health

Written by: Maru Gonzalez, EdD, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist

As we celebrate Pride Month this year, we must also acknowledge and address the mounting anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment that is sweeping our country, manifesting both socially and legislatively. Indeed, more than a dozen states have introduced anti-LGBTQ+ measures, including those that would prohibit any mention of LGBTQ+ people in schools and those that would force school staff to out trans youth to parents and caregivers. The isolating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth with little to no social or familial support, have placed additional strain on a population already at higher risk for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide

While such statistics are disheartening, a vast and growing body of research has demonstrated the positive impact that supportive and affirming spaces and people have on building LGBTQ+ youth resilience and contributing to healthy development. For example, a group of former Agricultural and Human Sciences (AHS) students published a blog post in Charlotte Pride to convey the positive mental health impact of using gender affirming names and pronouns. For the first in our Spotlight on Hope series, I reached out to AHS student and child life specialist, Sandy Batchelor, and asked her about her work with LGBTQ+ youth and mental health. 

Tell us a little bit about the work that you are doing or have done related to this topic. 

SB: I am a certified child life specialist with a focus on childhood mental health. The child life scope of practice utilizes an in-depth understanding of typical (and atypical) child development. I practice in a hospital setting, where child life and mental health fields are often combined. The patients I encounter from the LGBTQ+ population are often hospitalized with unique challenges that stem from the prejudice and discrimnation they face as members of the LGBTQ+ community. Common hospitalizations are due to suicidal attempts, severe depression that regresses their growth and development, and even children seeking a new home placement if their parents abused or neglected them.

What resources do you recommend for people who want to learn more about this topic and how they can get involved?

SB: To learn more about this topic, I’d encourage people to start simple- Google it, just as we do for other topics that we want to learn more about. There are numerous articles and research studies online to become educated and familiar about the LGBTQ+ community. To additionally find information and get involved, there are many local and national organizations that encourage participation from LGBTQ+ people and their allies. 

How do you suggest people get involved in this work around this topic?

SB: Getting involved can include many opportunities, but especially becoming educated on the challenges an LGBTQ+ person endures daily from discrimination. Advocating for and with this population is the most important work needed. 

What challenges have you faced in doing this work?

SB: In my work with children and young adults, especially in a hospital setting, I’ve faced several challenges relating to taking care of myself while wanting to continue doing more for others, especially innocent people who have experienced bullying. I’ve recognized that I have to sometimes step away from my work to remain emotionally and mentally healthy so that I can continue supporting others. I’ve also discovered hobbies that I enjoy so that I can decompress in a healthy way, especially after witnessing such trauma and horror stories from patients. At times, it can be emotionally exhausting to experience an increase in patients who have suicidal thoughts and/or depression and to see them at their lowest points in life. It’s even more draining to learn that they are having such dark feelings because of the bullying and harassment on the basis of their gender and/or sexuality. There’s no excuse for them to deserve this treatment, no matter their identity. 

When you think about this topic and the work you do, what gives you hope?

SB: Working in the progressive field of mental health comes with many challenges, especially facing criticism from those who are uneducated about mental health and the impacts it has on individuals. Unfortunately, there are still many people who are unfamiliar with mental health and who don’t support mental health initiatives and/or LGBTQ+ people. However, I find hope in my field of work and as an individual that there is progress being made for and with this community. 

Despite the challenges ahead, I, too, remain hopeful. My own research focuses largely on the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth belonging across school, familial, and community contexts. And while the stories of the LGBTQ+ young people with whom I work include experiences with isolation and discrimination, they also reflect the value of support, resilience, and community. Indeed, hope thrives when we work together to create a world in which everyone belongs.