For the last three years, the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, has issued reports about mental health in the community, based on large-scale surveys. And this year, the news is dire: A large proportion of LGBTQ youth considered suicide during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s installment also features the survey’s most diverse group of respondents, including a more representative number of people of color and nonbinary people, and it found comparatively higher suicide contemplation among those groups in particular. While 12% of white people in the survey had attempted suicide, that rate was 18% for Latinx people, 21% for Black people, and 31% for Indigenous people (45% of respondents were youth of color).
While rates as a whole aren’t higher than in past years, the report found that other mental health factors, such as depression, have likely been exacerbated by COVID-19, due to the impact of pandemic-induced living situations that aren’t conducive to well-being. It also makes recommendations as to how they can feel more protected by the people in their lives.
Overall, of the 35,000 people aged 13 to 24 that were surveyed between October and December 2020, 42% said they seriously contemplated suicide in the past year. In particular, 52% of trans and nonbinary respondents reported considering suicide. That group made up 38% of the survey sample, the highest figure in the report’s history, because they’re a “group that has had a rough 2020 in terms of rights and discrimination,” says Amy Green, VP of research for the Trevor Project, referring to the surge in anti-trans bills in states across the U.S.
It’s been recently documented that researchers found that suicides actually dropped during the pandemic, by about 5% nationally in 2020 versus 2019, a surprising discovery given the perilous stressors of COVID-19 and its economic consequences. Trevor also didn’t find a significant jump compared with past years. (The Trevor Project doesn’t collect data on actual suicides; rather, it tracks contemplation and attempts, because national government data doesn’t break down suicide deaths by sexual orientation or gender identity.) But, after further speculation, researchers found that, while suicides may have dropped among white people, they probably increased among minorities. That trend is also true within the LGBTQ community, Green says. “We’re seeing that play out in our data here.”
Even if it’s not reflected in suicide-related data, Green says the pandemic clearly had an effect on the mental health of LGBTQ people, many of whom lost vital social and school support systems and were instead crammed into households where they may not have felt accepted for who they are. Eighty percent of respondents said COVID-19 had made their living situation more stressful. Only one in three said they served lockdowns in a place that acknowledged and respected their sexual orientation or gender identity. “Most of them are in a home that isn’t affirming their identity,” Green says, “and we know that affirmation plays a big role in suicide risk.”
The survey asked other questions about COVID-19 issues that have affected the broader population, including depression, of which 62% experienced symptoms. This was compounded by the fact that almost half said they weren’t able to access counseling when they wanted it, principally due to healthcare access and fear of providers not being competent in serving the LGBTQ community. “Our mental healthcare system doesn’t have a ton of providers who are accessible and able to treat LGBTQ youth in a way that affirms their identities,” Green says.
The survey was conducted around the time of the 2020 election, and 94% of respondents said their mental health had been negatively impacted by the political discourse, a higher number than in past years (though this was the first year the polling was done during a major presidential election), reflecting how young people, many not yet of voting age, feel that adverse policy decisions trickle down to them. Trevor intends this report to be used to influence decisions by policymakers, as it has in the past, when the group has used it to advocate particularly for the abolition of conversion therapy and against bills that discriminate against trans people.
Respondents also listed things that gave them joy and strength, including music and theater, seeing rainbow flags and stickers in public, viewing others taking pride in being LGBTQ, and watching people like them on YouTube and TikTok. But, Green says, the way to feel most protected is having a circle of family and loved ones being a supportive force in their lives, by accepting their pronouns and reaffirming their love for the person they are. In past research, they found that youth with at least one accepting adult were 40% less likely to attempt suicide. And often it’s the simplest gestures that count. “Folks don’t have to be experts to be advocates and supporters,” she says. “Part of that is just listening, and empathy, and learning about these identities.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text “HOME” to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.