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The News Media Can Be Especially Depressing for LGBTQ+ Students

From high-profile bullying incidents to book bans to state legislation restricting transgender youth access to health care and sports teams, the bombardment of news of these events and policies can have a corrosive effect on LGBTQ+ students’ mental health.

But what educators may not fully understand is that this is true even if kids don’t appear to be directly affected by an event or policy, said Amy Cannava, a school psychologist and the chair of the sexual-orientation and gender-diversity committee for the National Association of School Psychologists.

Following the death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager in Oklahoma who died the day after being involved in a fight in their school restroom, an Indianapolis-based crisis hotline for LGBTQ+ people saw a large increase in calls and messages, illustrating how this incident had ripple effects far beyond the school community it originated in. Nex’s family said the teen was bullied, and the state’s medical examiner has ruled their death a suicide.

“Even if a person isn’t right next to an event or an experience, they feel a kinship with the person, because they share something in common, such as being nonbinary or LGBTQ,” said Cannava. “As a result, they feel the impact of a death in a strong manner that sometimes older generations might not realize, because the thought might be, ‘Well, you didn’t know them, so how could you be affected?’”

It’s vital for the adults in LGBTQ+ kids’ lives to understand how these events and the resulting news coverage and public debate affect them in order to better support them, said Cannava.

Surveys show that LGTBQ+ youth are very plugged in to current events that relate to them, and it’s vital for the adults in their lives—especially educators—to understand how far-reaching the effects of these events are, said Cannava, and to take steps to support LGBTQ+ students.

A 2023 survey of LGBTQ+ youth by The Trevor Project, a nonprofit that focuses on suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth, found that 85 percent of LGBTQ+ youth said they pay some or a lot of attention to media reports about LGBTQ+ people’s rights. The survey included more than 28,000 LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-24 across the country.

Nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ young people said their mental health was poor most or all the time because of policies and legislation related to LGBTQ+ issues. And about 2 out of 3 said that hearing in the media and through other sources about potential laws banning people from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in school made their mental health a lot worse. (On the flip side, nearly 8 in 10 LGBTQ+ youth said that hearing about potential state laws that would ban conversion therapy made them feel better.)

Assessing their safety all the time

News of anti-LGBTQ+ incidents and policies force LGBTQ+ youth to constantly assess their safety, said Madi Bourdon, a school counselor in Oregon and the American School Counselor Association’s DEI and LGBTQ+ committee lead. And the pace and quantity of that news can begin to feel overwhelming.

Consider, for instance, that 526 bills relating to transgender issues—such as banning gender-affirming care for minors or prohibiting trans students from participating on school sports teams that align with their gender identity—have been filed this year in 41 state legislatures, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker. Those legislative developments are often covered extensively by the local and national media and prompt angry debates on social media.

Groups tracking requests to remove books from schools and libraries have found that a record number of titles were targeted last year, many of which were related to LGBTQ+ issues. (An analysis by The Washington Post found that while many books are put back on shelves after being challenged, LGBTQ+-related books are often permanently pulled). That can be especially disheartening to LGBTQ+ youth when they read about it in the news or on social media.

Another recent analysis of FBI data by The Washington Post found that school hate crimes targeting LGBTQ+ people have risen sharply in recent years. And the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned last year that threats of violence against the LGBTQ community are on the rise.

“In the long run, that affects kids’ mental health and their sense of belonging,” said Bourdon. “You can’t learn if you’re in a space of feeling threatened, so their education is directly affected when they do not feel safe in school.”

LGBTQ+ students’ mental health is already at greater risk than their non-LGBTQ peers’.

Federal data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer high school students were much more likely than their heterosexual peers to report feeling persistently sad and hopeless—69 percent compared with 35 percent. (The survey, conducted in 2021, did not include data on transgender youth.)

There are data suggesting that what happens in politics and state legislatures trickles down to K-12 schools. In The Washington Post analysis, states that had enacted laws targeting LGBTQ+ people saw the biggest increases in hate crimes on K-12 campuses.

“Many of our kids are looking up to us to see where the boundary line is,” said Bourdon. “When that boundary is not held at a high level to protect our kids, how are other students going to rise above the morality of adults?”

How schools can respond

What can educators and schools do?

Schools’ anti-bullying policies should enumerate or specifically list groups of students who are more likely or vulnerable to being bullied, said Cannava of the NASP.

“We know that if the policy isn’t enumerated for protected classes, whether its trans, or gay, or ethnic minorities, or bilingual students, or students with disabilities, the power of that policy is weakened,” she said.

Surveys of LGBTQ+ high schoolers by GLSEN, a nonprofit advocacy organization focusing on LGBTQ+ students in K-12 schools, have found that students are less likely to be bullied and more likely to report that teachers intervened when they were being bullied when their schools had enumerated policies. But while three-quarters of students reported in GLSEN’s most recent survey that their school had an anti-bullying policy, only 12 percent said the policy enumerates sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

School leaders also need to listen to students and parents, Cannava said, and focus on whether someone was hurt.

“When students and parents report bullying, a school district’s initial thought might be this doesn’t constitute bullying because it hasn’t been repeated or there’s no evidence of a power differential,” she said. “To me, the point is not whether or not it constitutes bullying, the point is that some form of harassment or harm has taken place. And that should be the focus, rather than focusing on whether it meets a specific disciplinary category.”

Allowing for affinity groups, like gender and sexualities alliance clubs, or GSAs , are another way schools can support LGBTQ+ youth mental health when they are feeling overwhelmed by news coverage that is disheartening to them, said Bourdon.

Individual teachers, Cannava said, can have the biggest impact by simply being observant and taking concerns to a school counselor, psychologist, or social worker.

“Teachers have tremendous power for good,” she said. “They are the first line of defense for mental health concerns in general.”

That’s not to say that teachers are responsible for providing mental health care, said Cannava, but they see students every day and are more likely to notice a change in a student’s demeanor or grades.

Putting LGBTQ+-affirming messages or decorations up in the classroom, even subtle ones, is also helpful, said Cannava. She acknowledged that many teachers are in a tricky spot when it comes to showing open support for LGBTQ+ students in their classrooms. Hanging up a pride flag may run afoul of school, district, or state rules.

“I know there are plenty of places you can’t have anything LGBTQ up,” she said. “But there are symbols that are innocuous, like posters of rainbow crayons.”

Finally, teachers can support LGBTQ+ students by recognizing how the cumulative effect of the punditry, political rhetoric, and online commentary on LGBTQ+-related issues erodes kids’ mental health, said Bourdon.

“We, as educators, need to know what is going on to inform how we support our students,” she said. “Everything that’s going on, not only does it affect conversations in the classroom, it affects school communities at large. For educators to be able to at least acknowledge the things that are affecting our students—it’s vital.”

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