Decades of research have shown that discrimination wears on the mental health of young LGBTQ people over time, but a pre-pandemic study conducted by an American University professor indicates the damage can be more immediate.
Ethan Mereish, an associate professor of health studies at American University and a licensed psychologist, spent a year surveying almost 100 LGBTQ-identifying people ages 12 to 18 who live throughout the D.C. region. Each one completed three weeks of daily surveys about the discrimination they faced, and rated their emotions for the day based on a scale.
Mereish’s study found that on days youth experienced discrimination related to their LGBTQ identity, they also experienced increased negative emotions. And on days when the youth didn’t experience any discrimination, they reported lower levels of negative emotions.
“Despite our best efforts to have the D.C. area be a welcoming, affirming and safe space, queer youth are still experiencing a lot of stress related to their intersecting identities,” Mereish said.
He said the most common stressor identified in the daily diaries was vicarious stress — which he defined as exposure to negative, stigmatizing information related to one’s identity.
Some examples of this included hearing transphobic or homophobic commentary from politicians or news outlets, watching anti-LGBTQ commercials, seeing discriminatory commentary on social media, or witnessing or hearing about a hate crime.
“These are very negative and difficult experiences. And if we understand them from a stress framework, they’re obviously very stressful experiences,” Mereish said. “And we know from decades of research, stress is very toxic to our health. It’s one of the strongest predictors of poor mental and physical health outcomes.”
Young people experience all kinds of stresses, even before the pandemic, but: “LGBTQ youth specifically experience added stressors that are unique to their oppressed and marginalized identities such as homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other forms of marginalization,” Mereish said.
The survey found an average of 17 stressors reported during the 21-day period.
“Those stressors are, over time, internalized, and have toxic effects on one’s mental health, on one’s self-esteem and on one’s body image,” Mereish added.
The 94 LGBTQ youth in the survey commonly reported feelings of rejection from family, peers and teachers.
“Rejection took many forms — including verbal harassment, slurs, being discriminated against, being misgendered, feeling that one’s identity is being erased, being outed,” Mereish said.
This can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which he said is a “significant predictor” of poor mental health. He said decades of research has shown LGBTQ youth are at greater risk for several mental health concerns — such as depression, anxiety and suicidality — than their heterosexual or cisgender peers.
Youth also reported stress from “having to navigate and figure out what environments may be safe for them to be a queer person and what environments might feel unsafe,” and sometimes have to “hide one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, from context to context.”
Some of this stress might come from classroom settings where students may have to decipher which teachers are allies and which are not.
“And for some adolescents, given that the sample was 12 to 18, some were still questioning and trying to understand their identity, and not having a safe space to understand and explore that identity was also a stressful experience,” he said.
Supporting LGBTQ youth
Family, friends, teachers and community members all have a part to play in alleviating mental hardships for LGBTQ youth.
Mereish recommends school administrators host trainings for teachers to address biases and that queer history be taught in schools to help normalize and affirm the LGBTQ community.
He added that the existence of gender-sexuality alliances in schools helps “decrease disparities in mental health for queer youth.”
“Families play a very crucial role in all of this,” he said. “We know a really important factor in being able to reduce suicide risk is having an accepting and affirming parent.”
Supportive parental figures or guardians should educate themselves on LGBTQ issues and “be able to face their own biases that they grew up with,” Mereish said.
“There isn’t anything wrong with queer youth — it’s the system of oppression that creates these negative health outcomes, and stigmatizes and creates these stressors.”