Mental health programs cannot ignore Black LGBTQ/SGL youth

OPINION: A global pandemic and systemic racism have the potential to impact Black LGBTQ/SGL youth’s mental health in ways they might not yet realize

A Black LGBTQ Lives Matter flag flies during Black Trans Lives Matter march on June 27, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images,)

Black LGBTQ/SGL (same gender loving) youth find themselves at the intersection of two daunting public health crises: a global pandemic that has disproportionately harmed communities of color and the epidemic of systemic racism and police brutality. These current events have the potential to impact Black LGBTQ/SGL youth’s mental health in ways they might not yet realize.

Black LGBTQ/SGL youth hold multiple marginalized identities, which can all be targets of discrimination, rejection, and violence. Combined, these experiences of minority stress can weigh heavily on their mental health, and may lead to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Disturbingly, a 2018 study found that Black children ages 5 to 12 years old are taking their lives at roughly twice the rate as white children.

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A 2019 study confirmed that the suicide death rate among Black youth has been increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group. And while Black LGBTQ/SGL youth experience rates of depressed mood and suicide attempts similar to all LGBTQ youth, research from The Trevor Project shows they are significantly less likely to receive mental health care. 

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Community members from Brave Space Alliance, Broadway Youth Center, and Renaissance Social Services pose around candles during the Pride Without Prejudice march in remembrance of Black trans lives lost to violence during the Pride Without Prejudice march on June 28, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Natasha Moustache/Getty Images)

With such clear mental health disparities, it’s easy to see that existing models of care have failed to adequately support Black LGBTQ/SGL youth with appropriate and inclusive mental health services. Programs that take a “one-size-fits-all” approach to mental health and suicide prevention lack the cultural grounding necessary for effective prevention among Black LGBTQ/SGL youth. It is past time we significantly invest in Black LGBTQ/SGL youth mental health. 

For communities at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, we must acknowledge the existing disparities among them, including unique risk factors for suicide, depression, and anxiety. We must also better understand the barriers to existing systems of care, such as concerns with affordability, parental permission, being outed, and more — many which are a result of anti-Blackness, lack of LGBTQ competency, stigma, and bias.

By listening and learning from key communities –– such as respected religious leaders; family members and guardians, including chosen family; and Black LGBTQ/SGL youth themselves –– we can build holistic, culturally competent services and programs that address the unique mental health challenges facing Black LGBTQ/SGL youth.

Together, we can discover what Black LGBTQ/SGL youth need, how they feel, and how they can best be supported. Their experiences can inform our collective efforts to improve policies, programs, and practices, ranging from our schools and health care system to public safety.

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A demonstrator speaks in support of Black transgender lives at a rally in Foley Square on July 30, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Supporting Black LGBTQ/SGL youth starts in your neighborhood and in your own house. Adults can start by listening, being affirming, educating themselves, and having empathy. Discuss power and privilege and have tough conversations about the intersections of race and LGBTQ identities with non-Black family, friends, colleagues, and peers. Use your platform and your privilege to speak out against racial injustices and anti-Blackness, and amplify Black voices, especially queer and trans Black voices.

Remember that even behind closed doors, language matters; we know that words have the power to reinforce harmful stereotypes and marginalize the most vulnerable among us. 

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For Black LGBTQ/SGL youth who do not currently have the support systems they deserve, please know that your feelings are valid — all of them. There is no correct way to process everything that is going on in the world right now.

Know that organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition and The Trevor Project are fighting for you, and if you ever need help or support, The Trevor Project has free phone, text, and chat lifelines that you can access 24/7. You are worthy of love and respect, and you are beautiful just the way you are. 

David Johns is the executive director of National Black Justice Coalition and Amit Paley is the CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project.

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