Some Thoughts on Mental Health & Suicide Prevention for LGBTQ College Students
People often ask why the Chalk Message Project focuses so much attention on college campuses. For those who are unfamiliar, the You-Are-Loved Chalk Message Project is an annual, nationwide suicide-prevention campaign that battles hateful rhetoric toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community through the use of uplifting, positive chalk messages. Participants are also asked to organize suicide-prevention workshops and create dialogue on mental health and LGBTQ issues on the day of the event.
Before delving into some of the issues that LGBTQ college students might struggle with, let's talk about the college student population in general.
Each year, over 1,100 college students die by suicide in America. To put that number into perspective, 1,100 is almost the entire undergraduate population of some liberal arts colleges in this country. As it is often said, one life lost to suicide is too many.
Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article on the declining emotional well-being of college freshmen (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/27/education/27colleges.html?_r=1). That article shined light on some of the issues college students deal with. And it forced many to ask the question: Are we doing enough to address the realities that today's college students face?
There are many things college students might struggle with. Academic pressures, trying to fit in, living away from home for the first time, stress over student loans, balancing extracurriculars with coursework, fears of not finding a job after graduation, trying to keep up a part-time job while being a full-time student, and the list continues.
While none of these factors alone will lead a student to suicide, excessive levels of stress and/or feelings of isolation can increase the risk - especially if the student already struggles with depression or another mental health concern (90% of individuals who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness such as depression. Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's website at http://afsp.org for more information).
Now, what about the college student who happens to be LGBTQ? Like their peers, they are also struggling with many of the same pressures mentioned above. But now, let's add some other possible stressors to the equation:
Staying in the closet out of fear that their parents will kick them out of their house during breaks and/or cut off funding for college.
Actually being kicked out of their home and/or having funds for college cut off.
Struggling with returning to non-accepting homes after finding acceptance on campus.
Struggling to find acceptance on campus.
Check out some of the key findings in Campus Pride's 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People: http://www.campusprideblog.org/blog/release-first-ever-national-report-chronicles-lgbt-experience-us-colleges-universities
Struggling to accept themselves.
Fighting feelings of loneliness and isolation.
This occurs even on LGBTQ-friendly campuses. Sometimes, a university can be progressive, but simply have a limited number of LGBTQ students. This can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Finding LGBTQ-inclusive mental & physical health resources on campus.
This is overlooked on some campuses. Material on topics such as mental health, sexual health, healthy relationships, etc should be LGBTQ-inclusive.
Future job-security and location fears.
After college, will they be able to find a job with an accepting environment?
Currently, it is still legal to fire someone for their sexual orientation in 29 states. It is legal to fire someone for their gender identity or expression in 37 states.
Those are just some of the possible stressors LGBTQ college students might face. Of course, not all LGBTQ college students face these issues. Many never do. However, for the ones who do, these stressors can be significant. Losing one's home, isolation, rejection - these are all issues that can have a serious impact on someone's mental health.
Fortunately, more and more colleges across America are providing both mental health and LGBTQ resources.
Creating a strong sense of community in addition to providing mental health and suicide-prevention resources can help struggling students. Below is a list of different ways to take action at your university. Please feel free to add to it.
Helping all students:
- Make sure your university offers counseling services.
- Make sure people know about the lifeline numbers. Post them up in various areas around campus.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE
Lifeline for Hearing or Speech Impaired (requires TTY Equipment): 1-800-799-4TTY
Trevor Lifeline (for LGBTQ youth): 866-4-U-TREVOR
Veterans: Dial the national lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK and press 1 for the Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline.
- Create more suicide-prevention programming and awareness around campus.
- Educate Residence Life Assistants, faculty, staff, and students on the suicide warning signs and what to do if they suspect a classmate is suicidal.
- Fight the stigma surrounding mental illness, suicide, and reaching out for help. Here's just one idea: http://www.drew.edu/news/2011/02/14/erasing-the-stigma-of-mental-illness
- Start an Active Minds chapter at your university. Active Minds is a national mental health advocacy and suicide-prevention organization for college students. Visit Active Minds at http://activeminds.org
- Make sure the Career Center on campus offers tips for limiting stress during the job search.
- Offer plenty of campus community building events (a sense of community and belonging decreases the risk factor for suicide).
Helping LGBTQ students:
- Get actively involved with (or start) an LGBTQ student organization on campus.
- Petition for an LGBTQ Resource Center or staff member on campus who is specifically trained in LGBTQ issues.
- Include LGBTQ issues in Residence Life Assistant trainings.
- Make sure that mental, physical, and sexual health resources offered on campus are LGBTQ-inclusive.
- Reach out to LGBTQ student organizations at other college campuses (if nearby) and coordinate an event together. This can help decrease the sense of isolation on smaller campuses.
- Petition for LGBTQ Studies courses at your university. Being able to connect LGBTQ issues to the classroom can be beneficial to the students and university as a whole.
- Provide both activist-oriented and social events for LGBTQ students. Some LGBTQ students are interested in activism. Some are just looking to connect with others like them. Others are looking for both. Make sure to balance LGBTQ activism around campus with social and community-oriented events as well.
And of course, partake in events that address suicide prevention in the LGBTQ community. Visit the Chalk Message Project's website (http://chalkmessages.org) for more information.