Overwhelmed and encumbered agencies are increasingly unable to provide critical services for LGBTQ youth, leaving them powerless in impeding a downward spiral into homelessness and associated negative ramifications. There are 5 ways psychiatrists can help.
LGBTQ COMMITTEE OF THE GROUP FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF PSYCHIATRY
As the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States hits 30 million and continues to cause widespread pain in lives lost and economic devastation, sexual and gender minority youth face particular hardships threatening their lives, mental health, and social development.
In particular, social isolation may be especially challenging. These youths may be quarantining with rejecting family-members and losing contact with supportive social networks. The nature of quarantining means these problems are invisible to the public.
“Aiden,” a 16-year-old boy who is transgender, lives in a community particularly hard-hit by COVID-19. Aiden’s parents refuse to accept his gender identity or call him by his male name or use male pronouns. They frequently yell at Aiden to dress and act like a girl, assigning dishwashing and laundry chores to him alone, and not to his brother, to get him “used to doing girl stuff like you are supposed to.”
Serial COVID-19 outbreaks at Aiden’s school forced him into remote learning. His family has only 1 computer, shared by Aiden and his brother for schoolwork and Aiden’s mother for church meetings. Aiden’s parents banned him from using social media or communicating with friends because his parents believe “that’s where she picked up all this nonsense.” Aiden became completely disconnected from his friends. He was also cut off from affirming and supportive teachers. As tensions in Aiden’s family escalated, fighting became the only interaction between him and his parents.
One evening during a fierce argument, Aiden’s mother pushed him, and he pushed her back. As a result, she fell and had a small laceration on her shoulder. Aiden’s father became angry and punched Aiden in the face. Aiden’s brother called 911. The police arrested Aiden and his father. Aiden was released from jail to a Child Protective Services emergency residence. Because of COVID-19, he was required to spend 14 days isolated in his room, including mealtimes, and was unable to receive visitors. He also faced misdemeanor charges for assaulting his mother. His father also faced charges. Aiden was afraid of returning home because he was petrified of what his father might do to him.
Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) attempted to reunify Aiden with his parents, but over a period of several months, each attempt resulted in further physical altercations between Aiden and his father. Aiden moved into a group home where peers bullied him because of his gender identity. ACS was unable to address the problem because several staff members were hospitalized with COVID-19, and no other group homes were available for transfer. After a bully hit him, Aiden ran away from the group home, and the police could not locate him.
Even before COVID-19, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning (LGBTQ) youth were at higher risk of depression, suicidality, and tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use.1 These increased risks stem from elevated rates of rejection, discrimination, and victimization. During the pandemic, risks were further compounded by the loss of relationships in schools, clubs, or other community venues where LGBTQ youth found support and affirmation. Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, a psychiatrist at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, a New York City-based LGBTQ youth organization, reported that youth members of the institute are looking for more frequent counseling sessions. According to her, there were at least one-third more requests for initial psychiatry visits during 2020 than during the same period in 2019.
Results from a study commissioned by New York City’s ACS found one-third of the city’s youth in foster care identifies as LGBTQ, an order of magnitude greater than the general population.2 Nearly three-quarters of these youth are Black, and one-third identify as Hispanic/Latino. LGBTQ youth are placed in group homes and other campus settings rather than foster families more often than their non-LGBTQ peers, and they are more likely to be dissatisfied with their placement. The study also found these youth experience a greater burden of depression.
According to Dylan Waguespack, director of public policy and external affairs of True Colors United, 20% to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. True Colors United is a national organization dedicated to ending LGBTQ youth homelessness. Although family conflict, involvement in the foster care system, and involvement in the criminal justice system are among the factors that contribute to homelessness among these youth, poverty is often the root cause. Not only are these youth at risk for adverse mental health outcomes because of rejection and discriminatory behaviors, they often face traumatic experiences through conflict with their families, involvement in overwhelmed and poorly informed state programs.
Agencies that previously made efforts to address racial, social, gender, or sexuality based inequities before the pandemic have become even more overwhelmed with the increase in housing and food insecurity, increased unemployment, instability in the agency’s own staff, and the need to rapidly implement physical distancing and other public health measures in routine work. Overwhelmed and encumbered agencies are increasingly unable to provide critical services for LGBTQ youth, leaving them powerless in impeding a downward spiral into homelessness and associated negative ramifications.
Even as the pandemic ends, there may be continual struggles and support needs. Fortunately, there are ways psychiatrists and other mental health care professions can help.
Share resources and references for supportive organizations with patients who are LGBTQ (Table).
Resources for More Information
Family Acceptance Project
Trans Student Educational Resources
LGBTQ youth have long experienced marginalization and significantly increased risk of poor mental health outcomes. The COVID-19 pandemic sharpened the crisis and brought clarity to the precariousness of social service agencies that address those needs. Strengthening the support system for these youth and their allies and making agencies more inclusive of their voices is critical to help these young people achieve a healthy and fulfilling life.
Dr Adelson is the director of the Youth Equity Science/YES Project and senior visiting fellow at Yale Law School. He is also an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University and an adjunct clinical assistant professor at Cornell Weill Medical College. Dr Aholais the medical director emeritus at Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights. Dr Barberis the past president and journal editor for the Association of LGBTQ Psychiatrists and is an MDiv candidate at Union Theological Seminary. Dr Casoy is a community and public psychiatrist in New York City.Dr Drescher is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and an adjunct professor at New York University. He is also a distinguished life fellow of the American Psychological Association and the past president of the Group for Advancement of Psychiatry. Dr Erickson-Schroth is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and a consulting psychiatrist at Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQ youth.
1. Lothwell L, Libby N, Adelson S. Mental health care for LGBT youths. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ). 2020;18(3):268-276. doi:10.1176.appi.focus.20200018
2. Sandfort TGM. Experiences and well-being of sexual and gender diverse youth in foster care in New York City: disproportionality and disparities. November 2020. Accessed January 5, 2020. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/acs/pdf/about/2020/WellBeingStudyLGBTQ.pdf❒