It’s June and that means Pride Month, which is one way to recognize and celebrate children who identify with diverse sexual orientations or gender identities. As a psychologist in the Children’s Wisconsin Gender Health Clinic, I work with many diverse youth and their families, and I know how important it is to acknowledge a child or teen’s gender identity and sexual orientation as part of who they are. Unfortunately, some LGBTQ+ youth are faced with situations within their communities, cultures, or even homes where they don’t feel recognized or included, and this can understandably have a big impact on their mental health.
In fact, the mental health disparities for our LGBTQ+ kids are alarming. According to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, LGBTQ+ youth experience higher rates of mental health disorders in general and have almost twice the rate of death by suicide compared to other youth.
I found this statistic particularly disturbing — in 2019, for Wisconsin cisgender youth (someone whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth), 18 percent said they had attempted or considered suicide. I would obviously like that number to be lower for all youth, but sadly, it’s even higher for youth in Wisconsin who identify as transgender or nonbinary. In contrast, 62 percent of transgender or nonbinary youth in Wisconsin reported attempting or considering suicide. That is heartbreaking.
But here is what gives me hope: When gender diverse children are supported and grow up with families, friends and schools who care about them, those health disparities drop dramatically. When youth have access to appropriate medical care and psychological support, we don’t see the dramatic difference in suicide and depression. Gender diverse children who feel supported by their families, school, health care providers and communities experience rates of depression and suicidality similar to the general pediatric population.
So, what can support look like for parents and caregivers? It might be a lot easier than you think. Support doesn’t mean always knowing the right thing to say or do. It starts by simply being open to conversations about gender and sexual orientation and listening when your child tries to express who they are. It’s not uncommon for youth who identify as LGBTQ+ to have thought about their identity for some time even if it’s new information to you as a caregiver, so it’s okay if you need to take time to process or reflect. The best thing you can do in the moment is let your child know you love them and want to continue to talk about these topics, even if the conversations are sometimes hard. Asking your child, “What can I do to help you feel supported in this moment?” can be really helpful.
For LGBTQ+ children and families, support groups and individual or family therapy can be a tremendous help to facilitate conversations and foster understanding. For transgender or nonbinary youth, there may also be health care interventions to consider. At the Children’s Wisconsin Gender Health Clinic, we’re committed to providing care, education and support to patients and their families, while being sensitive to unique experiences and circumstances.
As June begins to wind down and the rainbow flags and advertising all go away, it’s a good reminder that when it comes to an LGBTQ+ child and their mental health, the best thing a parent, or anyone can do, is listen.
Kids in Wisconsin are experiencing a mental and behavioral health crisis, and many families are unsure how to address it with their children. That's why Children's Wisconsin is committed to helping parents and caregivers get the answers they need. To learn how you can play an active role in your child's mental and behavioral health, visit our Shine Through website.