Mental health and LGBT+

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
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The threats to mental health and wellbeing for LGBT+ students are many, varied and clear. Adele Bates highlights some of the challenges and advises schools

Almost half of all LGBT+ pupils face bullying at school for being LGBT+. Online, nearly all LGBT+ young people are exposed to offensive content about LGBT+ people, and only one in three think that reporting it will make a difference.

Since the EU Referendum there has been a 147 per cent rise in homophobic hate crime. This takes its toll on our LGBT+ youth: more than four in five trans young people have self-harmed and LGBT+ youth are four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual, cis-gender (non-trans) counterparts.
These facts were laid bare in Stonewall’s School Report 2017 – a study of more than 37 000 LGBT+ students across Britain.

Being LGBT+ is not a mental illness. Being LGBT+ does not cause mental illness. However, living in a society or community that:

  • Does not accept you for not being part of the majority.
  • Bullies you for being different.
  • Does not recognise your health needs.
  • Tells you that you are just going through a phase.
  • Does not teach you how to have safe sex with your chosen partners.
  • Pressures you to “come out” because you are different from the majority.
  • Does not provide role-models you recognise.
  • Tells you that you are perverse or wrong; that you have chosen to be the way you are and could do something to change.
  • Has a history of discrimination, hate and bigotry against you written in laws.
  • Makes you feel unsafe when you hold hands with the person you love or ignores your existence.

It is these situations that can cause such pressure as to lead to mental health issues. Furthermore, a couple of posters around the school with helplines for LGBT+ pupils will not be enough to support a young person with mental health difficulties. From a school-wide angle, they need to feel safe, wanted and included everywhere they go.

To find out if this is the case in your school ask, don’t presume. The phrase: but we don’t have any of those staff or pupils in our school is unhelpful and not most likely not at all true.

Statistically you will have. The government believes that around six per cent (3.9 million) of people are LGBT+ in Britain. Do you know the biologically assigned gender of your science technician? Do you know the gender of all your staff’s partners, past and present? Do you know the gender of all your pupils’ parents/carers?

It is vital that as staff we listen to the pupils – it is their mental health and wellbeing we are aiming to support. Set up an anonymous audit or survey for all staff and pupils that asks questions based around all the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010.

Ask specifically about safety and inclusion in different spaces, for example students may experience inclusion in some lessons but not during the sermons in your school chapel. You should also be able to find out if students feel safe with their peers, the staff, neither or both. The responses to these will point you to the area that you need to work on.

In leadership, you have the opportunity and responsibility to role-model inclusion across the whole school. How often is mental health addressed directly? Is it something that can be discussed in your school or is there shame attached to it? Are any of your staff able to share their own experiences with mental health?

When giving examples of inspirational role-models in assemblies how many of them are trans? What pronouns do you use when giving a speech at the open day for year 6s? If you’re unsure, begin with an examination of your language. Get familiar with key LGBT terms (see my previous articles, including the piece on LGBT History Month – links below), and be sure to get them right when you speak for and on behalf of your school.

Next, scrutinise the training that your staff have had. Would the NQTs know what to do if a student asked them to call them by a different pronoun? Would the dinner supervisors know what to do if they heard biphobic language in the dinner queue? Does the school nurse know the specific health needs that may affect some trans students? Are all staff logging homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying every time, and do they know the differences? What happens after such an incident? Is the victim offered support, and is the bully educated?

Some LGBT+ students may need additional support. The majority of the world still sees being heterosexual and cis-gender as the norm: name a Disney film/advertisement/recent pop song that wasn’t. These students battle this normative approach in society everyday: verbal abuse on the way to school because you are a boy who wears nail varnish; being pushed out of the changing room because the other girls found out that you are a lesbian; staying on a friend’s sofa for days, as your family can’t understand that you do not identify with the gender you were born with. These students are young, vulnerable and may not have support from adults in other areas of their lives.

Given the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity, it is important that any support of a student begins with identifying their specific needs.

Again, do not assume anything – ask. The issues will not all be around coming out. Some schools have equality or LGBT+ staff allies, who are fully trained and knowledgeable about the specific issues these students may face. This can be useful if counselling resources are low in your school, but remember that pupils may turn to any adult they feel safe with so everyone needs basic knowledge on how to be supportive.

Additionally, some schools have LGBT+ safe spaces in the form of lunch groups or breaktime places they can go. This can be a contentious issue: if your school must create specific safe spaces it suggests that the rest of the school is not safe – “youth project” or “hub” may be a more appropriate concept, open to everyone.

Other schools link with local LGBT+ organisations who can come in and support both the students and staff who work with them. This can be particularly useful if your school has trans students who are transitioning and the school is not familiar with the specific needs of such a student.

Think about the last time you found yourself in a situation you didn’t enjoy and felt isolated from: how well did you work? How well did you learn? How confident were you to answer questions in front of everyone? How supported did you feel to put an idea or alternative opinion forward? How much energy were you wasting over worry and anxiety about what others thought of you?

Two in five LGBT students, including half of all trans students don’t enjoy being at school and don’t feel part of the community. It is simple: if any of our students don’t feel safe, included or wanted then targets, learning and “doing your best” flies out of the window. We have to address these issues for our LGBT+ students, and all our students, so that each one of them can feel safe enough to learn.

  • Adele is an education consultant for schools on equality and diversity, LGBT+ awareness and Human Rights. She has taught for 16 years. Contact her via www.adelejbates.co.uk

Further information

  • For more from Stonewall’s research including the School Report 2017, visit http://bit.ly/2BfohbP
  • LGBT History Month, Adele Bates, SecEd, January 2018: http://bit.ly/2L3ogy9
  • Supporting trans students in your classroom, Adele Bates, SecEd, January 2018: http://bit.ly/2GoDzO7
  • An Introduction to supporting LGBT Young People: A guide for schools, Stonewall: http://bit.ly/2rL0qz6
  • Getting Started: A toolkit for preventing and tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in secondary schools: http://bit.ly/2HuoWds
  • Top tips for working with trans and gender questioning young people, All Sorts Youth Project: http://bit.ly/2GsZST5


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