Equitable access to physical and mental healthcare should be a human right. This access is especially critical for LGBTQ+ students.
At least one LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13–24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the U.S., according to a recent estimate from The Trevor Project.
“Understanding the number of LGBTQ youth who seriously consider and attempt suicide, as well as how often suicide risk occurs, improves our ability to serve and advocate for LGBTQ youth.”–The Trevor Project, 2021
Mental health is a long-neglected issue in pediatric populations, with those who are most vulnerable often lacking access to support and/or care. The COVID-19 pandemic has only contributed to this gap, leading to an increase in mental health symptoms, diagnoses and crises across the country.
Creating safe, supportive spaces where every student can thrive is a critical goal for most educators. To achieve this, education leaders can provide school-based services–like confidential telehealth.
The pandemic’s impact on LGBTQ+ students
In addition to academics, schools are a place for students to socialize. When the pandemic hit, classes moved online to keep students and staff safe. Unfortunately, some protective factors, such as peer relationships and the presence of mentors, were lost in the process.
An article from Brookings estimates the impact, stating “Although it’s too soon to conclusively link national youth suicide data to the pandemic, school districts across the nation have been reporting alarming spikes in both suicides and attempts at self-harm.” The same article cites educators as key in protecting student mental health.
When students aren’t on the physical campus, it is more challenging for educators to monitor and support their wellbeing. Issues of identity and development, plus relationship stress, are common consequences of this challenge. This is especially for LGBTQ+ students.
Studies have shown that LGBTQ+ youth are at greater risk of developing maladaptive behaviors, such as self-harm and substance abuse, which, in turn, leads to feelings of guilt and lack of self-worth. These behaviors occur due to the lack of supports and insufficient examples of healthy coping mechanisms. We all can default to harmful strategies, such as smoking and cutting behavior, without good guidance because it resolves immediate pains.
The family dynamic for LGBTQ+ students can also be more difficult, as they may not be receiving enough (or any) support from a parent or guardian.
I know adults who are still coping with this sort of trauma, which is painful to see. It’s also a reminder of why it’s so important that we do whatever we can to support, advocate for and protect our most vulnerable youth.
By providing access to telehealth services, school districts can:
First and foremost, telehealth helps remove stigmas and judgement that LGBTQ+ youth so often face.
There’s a long history between mental health and LGBTQ+ populations. Until not too long ago, their identity was treated as a pathology – or seen as a bad thing. Healthcare hasn’t been the warmest place for those who identify in this way.
Providers who specialize in serving LGBTQ+ patients exist, but it’s still a growing field. This means it can be incredibly difficult to find and see a clinician with this expertise in-person.
Through a telehealth service, however, patients aren’t limited by their physical location. They can access a wider range of physicians and other resources, including those specific to LGBTQ+ populations.
While we’re seeing progress in supporting equal rights, legislation targeting the LGBTQ+ community is still a reality. According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s annual State Equality Index, 185 anti-equality bills were introduced in 2020–four of which were signed into law.
In the face of discrimination, schools are often the go-to support for LGBTQ+ youth. This means that education leaders should be doing everything they can to create safe, welcoming spaces for every student.
It must be intentional. A safe space isn’t just a physical place. Rather, it’s an environment where students are free to be themselves, without fear. It’s so important to listen. Center LGBTQ+ youth voices, so students can decide for themselves what they want from their school-based mental healthcare.
In therapy, you want to have good rapport with your provider. The same holds true for a physical, or any other appointment; you want to be able to trust that provider and feel like they “see” you. This is vital for LGBTQ+ students.
Districts can support this by providing access to in-school and community services. An important start is fostering opportunities where young people can express themselves–in terms of a pronoun, for example. I know this can feel like a stretch for some schools; it’s necessary for creating spaces that feel truly safe for all students.
Address students’ mental and physical health needs
Remember: finding clinicians with the right expertise can be a challenge. Telehealth opens the door to a larger base of support with which students can connect.
There’s safety and trust, too. A virtual appointment doesn’t require a student to visit a doctor’s physical office. Instead, they’re in charge of creating their own safe space to receive care.
Telehealth can be used to address immediate health needs, like a fever and chronic conditions like asthma, as well as behavioral health through therapy and other services.
Working together to support all students
There’s much to be learned from the districts that are taking active steps to create inclusive, welcoming classrooms. And schools don’t have to go about this alone. Consciously partnering with telehealth providers, such as Hazel Health, on well-being initiatives is another way to nurture safe, non-judgmental and confidential spaces where young people can receive care.
Adolescence is about holding onto hope and envisioning a future. When that’s taken away, it has detrimental effects on mental and physical health. Let’s work together to eliminate barriers and extend proper care to every student, especially those most vulnerable.
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