How To Best Support LGBTQ+ Youth Who Struggle With Depression, Anxiety
PROVO, Utah – Eighty-six percent of LGBTQ youth have experienced harassment at school and are twice as likely to experience hopelessness and sadness. Trans youth are twice as likely to experience depression and attempt suicide.
One Provo teen shared her story as Pride Month wraps up.
Jenna Webb, 19, is a talented artist.
“I really love art. I love oil painting, especially,” she said.
She’s also an intern at Encircle, where she mentors other LGBTQ+ youth.
Jenna identifies as queer.
She first came out to her mom when she was in middle school. She said it wasn’t a difficult decision since she shares such a close relationship with her.
“Gosh, she’s just so smart and kind. She’s gentle, she’s fierce, like, fiercely protective, and loyal,” her mother, Mary Webb, described Jenna.
“We were just like talking and hanging out and I just was like, ‘Mom, I am not straight,’” Jenna recalled with a chuckle. “’And that means something and I want to share that with you because you’re my mom.”
“Honestly, it just felt like a conversation,” Mary said.
“’Thank you for telling me. Thank you for trusting me. What can I do? How can I support you?’” she responded to her daughter.
“It was really nice to just have the community within my family as well, and it made myself comfortable to come out,” Jenna said.
Though she’s felt love from her mom and family, many of whom are also part of the LGBT community, she acknowledged it hasn’t always been easy. Her mental health started to take a toll.
“To feel so deep in your soul that there’s something wrong with you, like, that is incredibly isolating, and honestly, like, frustrating,” she described. “You feel like you’re the only one that truly feels that way.”
She said it was terrifying not knowing many other people who were part of that community.
“It really does truly hurt your self-esteem and your confidence,” she said. “I really internalized that, and it kind of felt like I wasn’t, like, telling the truth to myself for a long time.”
Jenna was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and spent several weeks in a psychiatric unit when she was in high school.
Jess Holzbauer is a licensed clinical social worker and the manager of day treatments at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. She often works with LGBTQ+ adolescents.
“They experience a significantly higher rate of depression and anxiety as compared to their peers,” Holzbauer said. “There’s about a 50 percent greater incidence of depression and anxiety with individuals who don’t identify as heterosexual.”
She said this community faces unique challenges, combined with the already difficult experience of being a teenager.
“Not only are they trying to figure out, you know, how to socially make it, but they’re also trying to figure out this really, really important and central piece of who they are,” she said.
It’s only natural for this demographic to constantly check their surroundings, Holzbauer said. “Checking to see — is the environment safe? Are the people that I’m around accepting?”
“And then you compound that with having to explain oneself frequently. It’s exhausting, right?” she said. “A lot of kids will talk about just feeling done at the end of the day and just not wanting to engage, which we know can lead to further isolation, which can lead to further symptoms of depression.”
Depression can affect one’s sleep, appetite and ability to concentrate.
“It affects our ability to have any sort of hope for the future, so it is just this profound void,” Holzbauer described.
She said anxiety often manifests itself as feeling hyper-aware, impending doom or experiencing a chronic headache or stomach ache.
“Irritability we see often with adolescents, especially with depression as well, and anxiety. They’re sharp, they are easily annoyed,” she said.
Holzbauer urged parents, family, friends and employers to extend support.
“Just being inviting, being interested, being curious, listening,” she said.
She also said making an effort to use someone’s preferred pronouns goes a long way.
“Mental health issues are often exacerbated by experiencing negative responses to their sexual orientation or gender identity, whether that’s from their family, or their friends, or teachers, or their religious community,” she said. “We know that there is a relationship between loved ones using an adolescent’s preferred pronouns and their health and happiness.”
Holzbauer recognized that it can be a very difficult thing for families and friends to do.
“And when you don’t do it right 100% of the time, acknowledging that and then moving on is really important,” she said.
Jenna found great support when she found Encircle as a freshman in high school.
“Oh my gosh, like, I’m not alone!” she remembers feeling after her first visit. “Especially meeting all these incredible people and just knowing that there’s nothing wrong with them. So how could there be something wrong with me?”
She also benefitted from continued strength through her mom.
“My mom has just been like the source of healing and growth,” Jenna said. “She just cares so much about her children telling like the truth and like being a space of honesty.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what is the best thing to do,” Mary admitted, but she said it comes down to just asking. “How can I be here for you? How can I make your day better? Just see the person.”
“When a parent can just listen and seek to understand, that can be tremendously helpful. And parents don’t have to have the answers. They certainly don’t have to have the solution,” Holzbauer said.
“Questions like, ‘Oh, wow, I would want to hear more about that. That sounds really, really challenging,’” she suggested.
This is exactly what makes teens feel loved, validated and listened to, she said.
“’Hey, you’re special to me. I love you, and so, who you are, I love and I accept that, the bottom line.’ That’s what LGBTQ youth want, right? Is understanding and acceptance,” said Holzbauer.
“This person that you gave birth to and brought into this world is a unique expression. No one else is like them, and they get to be your child, and you get the most beautiful experience of watching them develop,” Mary said. “Why not with the time that I have here just absolutely and authentically enjoy the person that I get to be acquainted with… it’s so exciting to just get to know this person.”
Mary often asks herself: “How would I want somebody to treat me? How would I want somebody to handle me if I came to them with something that just felt so core to me and tender?”
As a therapist, Holzbauer strongly believes in the power of therapy, for both the individual and for their family. She believes it can be tremendously helpful at all stages, both for those who are already struggling with their mental health, and proactively before someone feels depressed.
Most importantly, Jenna reminded other LGBTQ+ youth there is hope.
“Everything really does get better,” she said “I have been like the happiest that I’ve ever been in my entire life. It just means everything to know that everyone around you cares.”
Jenna is a student at UVU with aspirations of practicing medicine, specifically to improve the lives of the LGBTQ+ community and their mental health. She is also the vice president for the Women of UVU student chapter and currently works in HR.
“I feel so good that I can accomplish so many things while being part of the community,” she said.
Mental Health Resources, courtesy of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute:
- Encircle Utah has daily programs, online and in-person support groups for parents and youth ages 12-18, and therapy programs for youth ages 12 and up.
- The Trevor Project for LGBTQ+ Youth. If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place, call the TrevorLifeline 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. Trained counselors are available 24/7.
- Utah Pride Center has youth and family programs that serve youth and young adults ages 0-22. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
- Gender Spectrum has online support groups for teens (ages 13-19), Black Trans and Non-Binary Teen Group, Pre-Teens (ages 10-12), National Parent Support Group, and much more.
- Family Acceptance Project is a resource for parents struggling with acceptance to move further into acceptance. They provide training and consultation to parents, caregivers, clergy, and allies.
- LGBTQ-Affirmative Psychotherapist Guild of Utah is a good resource for individuals and families to find licensed therapists affirming of LGBTQ issues and have experience working with LGBTQ clients.
- Utah Crisis Line at HMHI: 1-800-273-8255 Call 24/7 to speak to a licensed crisis counselor at Huntsman Mental Health Institute if you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, are experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis, or are feeling overwhelmed and need support.
- Utah Warm Line: 833-SPEAKUT (833-773-2588 toll-free) Open 7-days a week, from 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. Certified peer specialists offer support for people who are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, isolated, or like they just need someone to talk to.
- SafeUT Crisis Chat Tip app Licensed crisis counselors at Huntsman Mental Health Institute are available 24/7 to respond to all incoming chats, tips, and calls by providing supportive or crisis counseling, suicide prevention, and referral services. Support is also available to parents and educators of students in public K-12 and higher education.