In the hours since Donald Trump was elected President, calls to The Trevor Project’s suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth more than doubled. For many LGBTQ young people, especially those who are transgender, immigrants, disabled, or people of color, the election result feels like a rejection of their humanity and their place in our country.
Every one of us, and especially those of us who are parents, caregivers, educators and other youth-serving professionals, have two urgent tasks. We must reassure our youth of their value, dignity and future, and we must identify and protect young people who are at risk.
Helping all Young People Cope
Whether or not a child or youth is LGBTQ, and regardless of their age, they may be experiencing this election as a traumatic event. If you think a young person is having a difficult time, you can help them feel better by taking the steps outlined in Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s guide for helping children and youth cope after a traumatic event. Key takeaways are: talk with your child about how they are feeling, allow them to ask questions, and encourage them to connect with others by writing caring letters or taking part in community gatherings. Reassure them that they are not to blame. SAMHSA advises that adults “model self-care” as best we can by setting routines, eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep. It’s fine for children to see adults cry or express their emotions, but take care not to yell or otherwise show intense anger.
Acknowledging Fears and Demonstrate Support
If you know that a young person is LGBTQ, ask how they are feeling about the election, and acknowledge that the results may have made them uncertain about their future. It’s important not to challenge, diminish or dismiss a young person’s fears that anti-LGBTQ prejudice—or racism, sexism, or other biases—will harm them.
Instead, show them that they will have support in confronting prejudice. Let them know that while there are real challenges ahead, we have already changed many hearts and minds in support of LGBTQ people—and that support isn’t going away. Remind them that you are there to fight for them, and (if true) of the other members of your community who are, too: friends, teachers, counselors, school administrators, family members, and many elected officials.
Affirming LGBTQ Identities
This is an especially crucial moment to actively show support for a LGBTQ young person’s orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression. Many adults believe that young people are aware of their support because they’ve never expressed negative views about LGBTQ people, but this is often not the case.
We know this is especially true when it comes to preventing death by suicide. Research by the Family Acceptance Project has shown that youth whose parents actively acknowledge and support their LGBTQ identities are much less likely to attempt suicide. That support can take many forms, such as:
· Offering to help the young person attend an LGBTQ youth group
· Watching movies or reading books with LGBTQ characters together as a class or family
· Displaying an LGBTQ-affirming poster, sticker or flag
· For parents, including a young person’s LGBTQ friends in family events
· For parents, making a donation to an LGBTQ advocacy or community organization of the young person’s choice
· For educators, advising or attending the school’s LGBTQ student group
For educators, HRC’s Welcoming Schools program has suggestions for affirming LGBTQ identities in elementary school classrooms. Many of these resources can be adapted for use with older students.
Addressing the Risk of Suicide
A shocking proportion of LGBTQ youth have considered or even attempted suicide. In a recent national survey, nearly 30 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer youth had tried to take their own lives in the past 12 months. That study did not identify transgender participants, but their risk is believed to be even higher, with one study finding that half of transgender youth had attempted suicide in their lifetimes. With the election results compounding some young people’s feelings of hopelessness, it’s crucial that we check in immediately and directly with the LGBTQ young people in our lives.
If a young person appears to be in distress, the first step is to ask them privately whether they are feeling suicidal. Don’t agree to keep suicidal thoughts a secret, since you may need to involve parents, guardians, and/or mental health professionals in order to keep the young person safe.
If the young person indicates that they have a plan for suicide, the situation is a medical emergency. Do not leave the person alone, remove any items that could cause harm, and call for medical assistance.
If the young person is having thoughts about suicide but does not have a plan to harm themselves, or if they are not suicidal but are in distress, listen supportively to their concerns. Next, call the school crisis response team (if applicable) or make every effort to connect the young person with a mental health professional, such as a school counselor, as soon as possible. If possible, choose a mental health professional who is LGBTQ-affirming and experienced at working with LGBTQ youth.
If you are concerned but don’t see signs of danger, and the young person isn’t comfortable discussing their feelings with you, you may recommend that they contact a crisis hotline—particularly The Trevor Project, which runs phone and text chat support lines specifically for LGBTQ youth.
In each case, do your best to remain calm, and take a tone of concern and sympathy. Listen to the young person’s responses without expressing judgement, and ask follow-up questions that encourage them to say more. If the young person is not feeling suicidal, supportive listening may be enough to reduce their distress. If they are feeling suicidal, these techniques may help keep them calm until you can get help.
The Role of High School Teachers in Preventing Suicide (National Suicide Prevention Resource Center)
Preventing Youth Suicide: Tips for Parents and Educators (National Association of School Psychologists)
Frequently Asked Questions About Referral to Mental Health Services (Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide)
Donald Trump’s campaign featured mockery of people with disabilities, objectification of women, sexual assault, demonization of Muslims, rhetoric that has emboldened white supremacists, and policies that would tear apart many immigrant families. We should keep each of these themes in mind as we support the young people in our lives. It’s also important to consider a young person’s family status. For instance, the children of LGBTQ or undocumented immigrant parents may be feeling as destabilized as those who are themselves LGBTQ or undocumented.
Even as we cope with our own anger, sadness and fear about our political future, we must remember that the most important force keeping LGBTQ youth safe is support in their families, schools and communities. We have the power to both provide and build that support, regardless of the political winds.