It is well-documented that LGBTQ+ youth report significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, drug use, suicide ideations, and negative health and life outcomes when compared to their straight, cisgender counterparts. Research has shown that a major factor in an LGBTQ+ youth’s health and wellbeing is feeling accepted by those around them. In fact, a study done by the Family Acceptance Project has shown that LGBTQ+ who experience rejection by their family are 8x more likely to attempt suicide than LGBTQ+ youth who have an accepting and supporting family.
The 2021 Trevor Project’s National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that the simple act of affirming and using transgender and nonbinary youths’ pronouns reduces the youth’s chance of suicide by over 50%. The Trevor Project reported that 24% of youth whose pronouns were not respected attempted suicide compared to the 11% of youth whose pronouns were respected. The same survey found that youth’s ability to change their names on legal documents had a similar impact on their suicidality with 25% of the youth unable to change their name attempting suicide compared to the 11% of the youth able to change their name. Small actions – positive and negative – at home, at school, and in community have huge impacts on marginalized youth.
The benefits of acceptance for LGBTQ+ youth have also been documented in academic research. The journal of Psychoneuralendocrinology published the study ‘Testosterone Treatment, Internalizing Symptoms, and Body Image Dissatisfaction in Transgender Boys’ in 2021. The study found that testosterone treatments improved the mental health and wellbeing of transgender adolescent boys for many different reasons.
Participants in the study receiving T treatment had significantly lower levels of generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and suicidality, and had increased body satisfaction. More interestingly, the researchers found that the neurological side effects of testosterone on the brain and behavior positively influence a youth’s developing brain circuits and behavioral patterns.
The researchers found that a major neural side effect of testosterone in transgender boys was that it decreased anxiety at a chemical and hormonal level in a few important pathways:
- Serotonin is the hormone responsible for stabilizing mood, well-being, and happiness. Testosterone increased the ability of serotonin to bond to its chemical transporter. Remarkably, past studies found that this interaction is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety in all people regardless of gender.
- Testosterone appears to regulate hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activation. Activity in this area of the brain is linked to the body’s adaptation to stressors. Too much activity in this area can cause an inflammatory response.
- The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Testosterone promotes neuroplasticity during hippocampal formation, thus improving memory function.
- And finally, testosterone seems to strengthen the functional coupling in the amygdala-medial prefrontal brain circuit during threatening contexts. Simply put, an increased involvement of the medial prefrontal circuit moderates the amygdala, which reduces the symptoms of anxiety when experiencing stress and confrontation.
The 2019 Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that a single affirming adult in an LGBTQ+ youth’s life can reduce their suicide attempts by 40%.
Never underestimate the power and necessity of supporting our LGBTQ+ youth, it is arguably one of the most impactful ways to give back to our community.
As research continues to show how important it is for LGBTQ+ youth to be accepted for who they are, it can be difficult to know what accepting behaviors look like. Dr. Caitlin Ryan, the founder of the Family Acceptance Project (https://familyproject.sfsu.edu/ ,) has spent years studying the importance of affirmation in the lives of LGBTQ+ youths. She has documented over a hundred accepting and rejecting behaviors that the LGBTQ+ youth population experiences and has published strategies – most of which are located on the website – to increase acceptance among adults.
Some Family Behaviors that Reduce Your LGBT Child’s Risk for Health and Mental Health Problems & Help Promote Their Well-Being
BEHAVIORS THAT HELP
• Talk with your child or foster child about their LGBT identity.
• Express affection when your child tells you or when you learn that your child is LGBT.
• Support your child’s LGBT identity even though you may feel uncomfortable.
• Advocate for your child when he or she is mistreated because of their LGBT identity.
• Require that other family members respect your LGBT child.
• Bring your child to LGBT organizations or events.
• Connect your child with an LGBT adult role model to show them options for the future.
• Work to make your congregation supportive of LGBT members, or find a supportive faith community that welcomes your family and LGBT child.
• Welcome your child’s LGBT friends & partner to your home and to family events and activities.
• Support your child’s gender expression.
• Believe your child can have a happy future as an LGBT adult.
©Caitlin Ryan, Family Acceptance Project, 2009. Reprinted with permission.
Some Family Behaviors that Increase Your LGBT Child’s Risk for Health and Mental Health Problems
BEHAVIORS TO AVOID
• Hitting, slapping, or physically hurting your child because of their LGBT identity
• Verbal harassment or name-calling because of your child’s LGBT identity
• Excluding LGBT youth from family events and family activities
• Blocking access to LGBT friends, events, and resources
• Blaming your child when they are discriminated against because of their LGBT identity
• Pressuring your child to be more (or less) masculine or feminine
• Telling your child that God will punish them because they are gay
• Telling your child that you are ashamed of them or that how they look or act will shame the family
• Making your child keep their LGBT identity a secret in the family and not letting them talk about their identity with others
© Caitlin Ryan, Family Acceptance Project, 2009. Reprinted with permission.
Connor Grannis, Scott Leibowitz, Shane Gahn, Leena Nahata, Michele Morningstar, Whitney I. Mattson, Diane Chen, John F. Strang and Eric E. Nelson, Testosterone Treatment, Internalizing Symptoms, and Body Image Dissatisfaction in Transgender Boys, Psychoneuroendocrinology, (2021) doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2021.105358
The Trevor Project. (2021). 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. West Hollywood, California: The Trevor Project.
The Trevor Project. (2019). National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health. New York, New York: The Trevor Project.
Ryan, C. (2014). Generating a revolution in prevention, wellness & care for LGBT children & youth, Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 23(2):331-344.
Ryan, C., Huebner, D., Diaz, R. M., & Sanchez, J. (2020). Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults.
Pediatrics: Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 1(1), 1-7. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3524
Ryan, C., Russell, S. T., Huebner, D., Diaz, R., & Sanchez, J. (2010). Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults: Family Acceptance in Adolescence and the Health of LGBT Young Adults. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing, 23(4), 205–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1744-6171.2010.00246.x
Sarah Rassmussen is a returning guest blogger. Previous blogs include Tracking Anti-Trans Legislation and It’s Not Your Fault, and You Are Not Alone: Inter-partner Violence and LGBTQ+ Folks.