If you are anything like me, March 1 came and went as just another first day of the month. Few of us could have imagined that our day-to-day way of life would soon be upended, and our country would be in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is considerable anxiety around protecting our individual health, social distancing and the physical isolation that comes from it have cut off a vital source of support for many of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (or queer) (LGBTQ) youth. Shared experiences with other young people like themselves provide these youth with a sense of community that they may not find in their schools, towns, etc.
LGBTQ youth already face increased rates of anxiety and depression compared with their heterosexual and cisgender peers. According to the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 63% of LGB youth nationwide reported feeling sad or hopeless compared with 28% of their heterosexual peers. While quarantined at home, many of these youth now are stuck for many more hours per day with families who may not accept them for who they are. Previous research by Ryan et al. shows that LGB adolescents who have higher rates of family rejection are nearly six times more likely to have higher rates of depression and more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers who come from families with low or no levels of rejection (Pediatrics. 2009 Jan;123:346-52). Going to school for roughly 8 hours a day allows some of these youth an escape from what is otherwise an unpleasant home situation. In addition, educators and other school staff may be among the only allies that a student has in his/her life, and school cancellations remove students from access to these important people.
Due to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing measures, lack of in-person access to medical and psychological care can be distressing for many LGBTQ youth. While many practices have been able to convert to audiovisual telemedicine visits, not all of them have the resources or capability to do so. Consequently, LGBTQ youth may have reduced access to support services that help to bolster their social and emotional health. In addition, many trans youth suffer from physical dysphoria that can make it distressing to see themselves on camera doing teletherapy and so they wish to avoid it for this reason.
This is not to say that everything is bleak. LGBTQ youth can also be resilient in times of stress and worry. “The LGBTQ community has a long history of overcoming adversity and utilizing challenges to build an even stronger sense of community. This pandemic will create yet another opportunity for us to highlight existing health disparities and to support our LGBTQ young people in finding creative responses,” said Heather Newby, LCSW, clinical social worker for the GENECIS (GENder Education and Care Interdisciplinary Support) Program at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. In addition, she reported that many LGBTQ advocacy groups have created excellent online support networks and resources to provide nationwide, regional, and local help.
During these challenging times, there are a number of resources that LGBTQ youth can turn to while trying to maintain their connection to their peers. First, many local LGBTQ service organizations have moved their in-person support groups to a virtual or online platform. Check with your local service organization to see what they are offering during these times. National organizations, such as Gender Spectrum, continue to have online groups as well that youth can participate in. Second, many virtual mental health helplines, such as those through the Trevor Project, remain staffed should LGBTQ youth need to access their services (1-866-488-7386, plus text and chat). They can be reached 24/7 to help those whose mental health has been affected during this pandemic. Third, youth can continue to stay connected to their friends through means such as Zoom, FaceTime, or other virtual audiovisual tools. Lastly, some youth have taken to meeting in school parking lots, mall parking lots, etc., and staying at least 6 feet apart so that they can still see their friends in person.
While the current times may be challenging, they will pass and we will be able to return to those activities that bring us joy. Do not hesitate to reach out if you need help. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “In the difficult, we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: There against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.”
Dr. Cooper is assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Southwestern, Dallas, and an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. He has no relevant financial disclosures. Dr. Cooper is on Twitter @teendocmbc. Email him at [email protected].