Bullying & LGBTQ Community Mental Health
What is Bullying?
October is National Bullying Awareness Month—an opportunity to refocus attention on how bullying damages our community members. Bullying is any act that is used to force, threaten, or abuse someone, or coerce them into doing something against their will. It can be physical, verbal, or social. In most cases the reason for bullying lies in some perceived difference, and for LGBTQ students, sexual orientation and/or gender expression or the perception of difference is an excuse for them to be physically and emotionally attacked.
National School Climate
The national outlook toward those who identify as gay, lesbian, queer, transgender (LGBTQ), or non-gender conforming has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. In that time, there has been a swelling of support for equality and outcry against hostility and discrimination aimed at LGBTQ people. Yet the climate of acceptance or rejection that LGBTQ students face in school is largely dependent on how accepting their surrounding community is. While places with large “out and proud” populations like San Francisco or Seattle may experience reduced rates of bullying, LGBTQ (or those perceived to be LGBTQ) students continue to face taunts and violence in schools. Bullying is often written off as something that children and teenagers “naturally” do, something that is “harmless,” a thing young people have to endure while they make their way through learning institutions.
The Fall Out
Many students who are regularly excluded from conversations or parties, mocked by peers, or physically harassed in gym class learn quickly that who they are is unacceptable. According to a 2010 study by the San Franciscan-based Family Acceptance Project, this harassment from peers contributes to an increased likelihood for drug abuse and poor grades. A University of Illinois 2011 study that sampled thousands found that LGBTQ-identified students skipped school nearly twice as often as their peers. They were 3.3 times more likely to think about suicide, and twice as likely to attempt it. With such prominent rates of LGBT bullying amongst youth, it is no surprise that heightened rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are seen in LGBT adults—the social and psychological consequences of their academic environment.
Youth who are victims of bullying are at increased risk of having anxiety and panic disorders, agoraphobia, and antisocial personality disorder. The Family Acceptance Project found that LGBT young adults who report high levels of school victimization during adolescence were 2.6 times more likely to report clinical levels of depression and 5.6 times more likely to report a suicide attempt that required medical care. These young adults reported lower levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and social integration. We hear about minority stress syndrome and have to wonder if what causes that stress is less about LGBT self-identification and more about school bullying—a scenario that most closely predicts the status of their future mental health and well-being. A society where bullying is tolerated predisposes LGBTQ youth towards mental health issues.
What is Being Done?
Out of fifty states, forty-seven have legislation that explicitly addresses bullying. All but one instructs their school districts to adopt bullying policies. Of those forty-six states, only ten include harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in its definition. That means that four-fifths of the nation has no policy regarding protection against bullying of LGBTQ students.
Most interventions that target student behavior seek to increase empathy and emotional intelligence in the student body. For example, Gay-Straight Alliances are formed that can be a haven for students and a place for allies to learn about their peers’ experiences. But students are not the only problem. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which works to end discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, routinely conducts surveys that look at the American school climate towards LGBT issues. The 2011 GLSEN survey found that nearly all of the students surveyed could name one school staff member who was supportive and/or encouraging of GLBT students in their school—many also report horror stories of teachers willfully turning a blind eye to disturbances in the hallways.
How Do We Move Forward
Violence against LGBT-identified individuals is violence on the premise of their sexual and gender identity. Title IX is a piece of federal legislation that requires colleges and universities who receive federal funding to combat gender-based violence and harassment, and ensure all students have equal access to education. It has recently been in the news in relation to sexual violence on a number of Ivy League colleges and universities—Tufts, Harvard, UC Berkeley to name a few. Title IX’s importance to creating a definition is two-fold: on one hand, it’s a good starting place for legal rhetoric and on the other, it provides language to describe LGBT-bullying as sexual harassment and may arguably already fall under the law. Creating a definition that includes LGBTQ-specific categories, requires adoption by schools across the nation, and stipulates that schools are responsible for creating a safe space for learning is the first-step to tackling the problem.
With a federal definition to look to, creating a code of conduct that includes input from students, staff, and parents is the next step. Having an inclusive and holistic approach could serve to create a sense of accountability as well as a sense of community.
Changing behavior is a difficult and complex thing but research suggests that learning methods can be the key in making change permanent. Social-Emotional Learning, often referred to as SEL, is defined here as a process of learning life skills that emphasizes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and interpersonal relationships. Researchers found that teaching SEL can reduce bullying by positively shaping the school climate. In addition to SEL strategies, ensuring that the curriculum is an LGBT-inclusive one would foster a positive environment. We know that representation matters—we need to be sure we are teaching our students about positive LGBT historical figures of all races and cultures.
Current interventions approach students, sometimes staff, and rarely parents. Parents need to be able to talk to their children about bullying in order to ascertain if their child is a victim. Staff must be provided with resources to learn about the issues their LGBT students face and should ideally be required to undergo cultural sensitivity training. Involving the entire school community creates a multi-layered approach that is more likely do a better job of prevention, surveillance, and protection of LGBT-students and their peers.
There are no easy answers to the problem of bullying. What is indisputable is that every student deserves to feel safe in school. Every student has the right to attend class, play sports, and turn in homework without the fear that they will be harassed. Every student has the right to grow up in a world where they are not disproportionately affected by mental health issues, simply because of who they are.