By Rebecca Ruiz
When Dwyane Wade recently appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and unequivocally embraced his 12-year-old’s decision to use the name Zaya, along with female pronouns, the basketball star showed the world how a loving adult can — and should — accept LGBTQ youth.
“Me and my wife, my wife [actress] Gabrielle Union, we are proud — when I say proud — we are proud parents of a child in the LGBTQ+ community,” he told DeGeneres.
That day Union tweeted, “Meet Zaya. She’s compassionate, loving, whip smart and we are so proud of her. It’s Ok to listen to, love & respect your children exactly as they are.”
These are more than just heartwarming sentiments. When LGBTQ children receive unconditional love, it helps them thrive despite possible rejection, stigma, and discrimination. Experts believe that such traumatic experiences put them at higher risk for considering, planning, or attempting suicide, and LGBTQ youth are significantly more likely to try taking their own life compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers.
New research from the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent LGBTQ youth suicide, found this disparity lasts beyond childhood. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults ages 18 through 25 were more than four times likelier than straight young adults to report planning and attempting suicide in the previous year. Experts suspect transgender and non-binary young adults are similarly at risk, but that data is not collected based on gender identity.
The fact that Wade’s conversation with DeGeneres became an endearing viral moment would’ve been unthinkable two decades ago, when the comedian first came out, but big strides in pop culture don’t consistently translate into safer environments for LGBTQ youth.
“We’ve made progress but that progress isn’t enough,” says Amy Green, director of research at The Trevor Project.
In order to reduce the stigma, discrimination, and rejection LGBTQ youth face, Green recommends championing the five following strategies:
1. Be a trusted adult who accepts and loves LGBTQ youth.
The Trevor Project’s research shows that LGBTQ youth were 40 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the previous year when at least one adult accepted them. Other research has linked family acceptance to similar positive mental health benefits, including increased self-esteem and social support as well as protection against depression and suicidal ideation.
“Imagine if everyone were willing to be that one person,” says Green.
While family support and adult allies are critical, Green argues that reducing suicidal thinking and behavior amongst LGBTQ youth requires a comprehensive approach beyond individual relationships.
2. Make schools a place where LGBTQ youth are accepted and protected from discrimination.
School climate can be notoriously hostile for LGBTQ youth. That’s why Green recommends schools adopt programs and practices that positively affect LGBTQ youth, including gender and sexuality alliance (GSA) clubs; prohibiting bullying based on a student’s sexuality or gender identity; identifying “safe spaces” where students can receive support; and, providing training for staff on how to create safe environments for all students.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes these amongst several strategies that schools can adopt to ensure the health and safety of LGBTQ youth. Green says that very few schools implement all of the recommended strategies, often because they lack staff resources and funding. Research suggests that LGBTQ students aren’t the only ones to benefit from policies meant to support them; outcomes can improve for the general school population as well.
3. Ensure that LGBTQ youth receive medical care that affirms their identity.
Despite increasing awareness and acceptance in pop culture, transgender and non-binary youth remain targets of stigmatizing legislation. In addition to so-called bathroom bills that prevent transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity, several legislatures have introduced bills to ban hormone therapy and surgeries for transgender youth.
Research shows, however, that receiving medical care that affirms their identity, can be life-saving for transgender youth. A recent study found that transgender youth who received puberty-blocking hormones during adolescence, compared to those who did not, reported decreased suicide risk as adults.
4. Create inclusive resources and services for LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness.
LGBTQ youth disproportionately become homeless, often as a result of family conflict or rejection. But when they seek housing services, they may encounter bias, harassment, and discrimination, which can deepen their despair. LGBTQ youth who are experiencing homelessness, in fact, attempt suicide at much higher rates than heterosexual and cisgender youth in the same situation.
Common experiences include being turned away from or abused at shelters, being harassed or sexually assaulted by shelter staff or residents, and being forced to stay in shelters designated for residents of the opposite gender identity.
“We need to ensure the services we have are inclusive of LGBTQ identities and are thoughtful of how those services play out so they’re not another form of rejection,” says Green.
5. Focus on community-led solutions.
LGBTQ youth often experience discrimination compounded by other aspects of their identity, including race, ethnicity, class, religion, and where they live. Green strongly recommends creating suicide-prevention services specific to youth communities, instead of reflexively using an intervention developed by an academic that doesn’t reflect local needs. That means working to implement solutions designed by community members and their allies.
While suicide is complex and caused by multiple factors, Green says the disparity between LGBTQ youth and cisgender, heterosexual youth can be traced, in part, back to being shamed and ostracized. Limiting those experiences through meaningful practices and policies, in addition to individual acceptance, is key to preventing suicide amongst LGBTQ youth.
“There is no one thing [that causes suicide] but we also know for LGBTQ youth there are often cumulative experiences of rejection, discrimination, and stigma, and that’s a pretty powerful force for risk of suicide,” says Green.
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, the TrevorLifeline provides free, confidential counseling. To reach a counselor, call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.