Researchers have confirmed over the years that LGBT adolescents have a far greater incidence of mental health disorders, suicides and suicide attempts than the general population.
“Rejection from peers and family rips the heart of LGBT youth,” Rabbi Debra Kolodny told a group of journalists at the 2015 National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference in San Francisco. “There is a lot of pressure to conform to a family idea of what one should be like instead of the family learning from the LGBT youth.”
Lack of acceptance is critical in the high suicide rate among gay and transgender youth, she said.
“Only 9 percent of LGBT youth feel accepted in their peer community,” Kolodny said.
Many families don’t merely reject their child’s orientation but exhibit behaviors that further increase an LGBT child’s risk for health and mental health problems, she said.
LGBT youth can be abused verbally and physically, and excluded from family activities, said Caitlin Ryan, director of Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. Children are pressured to conform or to stay in the closet and are discouraged from talking about their feelings.
In contrast, members of the NLGJA panel said, family support can make a huge difference in an LGBT youth’s ability to cope healthily with outside pressures related to their gender expression.
Conference attendees saw a film, “Families Are Forever,” that depicts the effect of family support on an LGBT adolescent. When a 14-year-old Mormon named Jordan Montgomery came out, he met with opposition from peers and his church. Even his mother, who was at the NLGJA session on Thursday, said she struggled.
“I felt like the son I knew was not the son I knew and I had to get to know this new person,” said his mother, Wendy Montgomery, in the film.
“The church believes there is no such thing as a gay adolescent,” Jordan said in the film. “They think that it’s just a thing that you can change, but it’s not.”
Jordan thought a lot about suicide, but his father, Tom, stood firmly behind his son and moved to a community that was more supportive.
Parents and community members hold the key to decreasing the risk for mental illness amongst gay and lesbian youth, Ryan said.
“It’s important to know what factors LGBT youth have to face every day,” Ryan said. “The more family and peers inform themselves and provide support for the LGBT youth, the healthier they will be,” she said.