Following the move to online instruction to combat the spread of COVID-19, a number of publications have been more frequently discussing the related mental health impact on LGBTQ+ students. In short, many of these articles focus on how stay-at-home orders have affected this student demographic. Examples of such topics include the broad, multilayered effect on transgender and nonbinary people and the increased risk of some LGBTQ+ students to drop out after returning to unsupportive familial homes (Brown, 2020; Green et al., 2020; James, 2020).
For many, there is still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the 2020–2021 academic year, and these concerns are compounded by reports of significant surges in infections across the country this past summer (Kim, 2020; Yan & Holcombe, 2020). More recently, the weekly average of new COVID-19 infections in the US—at the time of this writing—is declining slightly with an average of still nearly 50,000 per week. Additionally, notable changes to instructional methods at major universities, such as the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, have changed abruptly within a short time of reopening for the fall term (Maxouris, 2020; Smith 2020).
With that in mind, we must consider how we can better support the mental health needs of LGBTQ+ students in the classroom, particularly since a rapid move to online instruction might very well happen again for institutions that have committed to face-to-face learning and traditional residential communities. Below, I detail three ways that academic leaders and administrators can better understand and support the mental health needs of this student demographic.
Outside of the pandemic, there are a number of systemic challenges that directly affect the mental health of LGBTQ+ students. According to national data from The Trevor Project (2019), 39 percent of LGBTQ+ youth—defined as ages 13–24—had considered suicide in the past 12 months. For LGBTQ+ youth aged 18–24, that figure was over 30 percent, which suggests that this is still a systemic problem for LGBTQ+ students in college.
Furthermore, unsupportive school settings exacerbate the challenges facing LGBTQ+ students’ mental health, as research from GLSEN has shown. For instance, LGBTQ+ students who faced school-based discrimination on the basis of their sexuality, gender identity, and/or gender expression were found to have lower GPAs, more absences, lower self-esteem, higher rates of depression, and fewer aspirations to attain a degree than students who did not face such discrimination (Kosciw et al., 2018). GLSEN has also produced a number of useful reports to understand challenges facing LGBTQ+ students of color, and this data demonstrates the damaging, compounded effects of racism and xenophobia alongside homophobia and transphobia in school settings. While their data focuses on LGBTQ+ high school students, it is important for us to recognize and acknowledge the pre-college challenges these students encounter, if we are to adequately support them in the college classroom.
While the general trends in the LGBTQ+ community show an increased need for mental health services and inclusive learning environments, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the strain that LGBTQ+ students face. Due to preexisting health disparities, the broader LGBTQ+ community confronts increased health risks related to COVID-19 (National LGBT Cancer Network & Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, 2020). And consequently, the rapid move to online learning environments and the closure of campuses across the country also presented specific challenges for this student demographic.
Again, there is a clear concern that some LGBTQ+ students may drop out of college after returning to unsupportive familial homes (Brown, 2020). As noted by researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, anxiety and depression appear to have risen significantly among LGBTQ+ people since the start of the stay-at-home orders across the country (Maier, 2020). As such, we must consider the impact that both the current public health crisis and last semester’s rapid transition to online learning had on this student demographic, particularly as many colleges and universities may face (or are already facing) similar challenges again this academic year.
That said, we must consider the challenges facing LGBTQ+ students as we return to campus for the fall term. More specifically, we must also consider how we can better build new and lasting mental health support structures into courses—whether in-person or online. For departmental leaders, this means that we must bring this urgent need to the attention of our faculty members, while also providing them with support and guidance about best practices and mental health resources to create a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.
This support and guidance takes a variety of forms. For instance, many colleges and universities have useful internal resources, such as diversity and inclusion units, to help faculty and departments better support LGBTQ+ students and other student demographics. Additionally, outside resources aimed at helping the professional development of faculty are critical, particularly given the strain placed on so many departments during these unprecedented times. Furthermore, faculty members may consider sharing practical information about mental health resources from the campus (e.g., counseling and mental health services) to national level (e.g., information about organizations such as The Trevor Project and Trans Lifeline) with their students.
In short, we must recognize the systemic challenges that affect the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ students, while also paying close attention to how the current public health crisis has affected this community in particular. In doing so, we need to consistently question how to better integrate support structures for LGBTQ+ students into our classes. Ultimately, we must also—when supporting the mental health needs of this student demographic—continuously focus on the emerging challenges facing LGBTQ+ students, while simultaneously recognizing how quickly best practices to support the needs of this community can evolve.
Brown, S. (2020, April 24). Covid-19 sent LGBTQ students back to unsupportive homes. That raises the risk they won’t return. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Covid-19-Sent-LGBTQ-Students/248633
Green, A. E., Price-Feeney, M., & Dorison, S. H. (2020). Implications of COVID-19 for LGBTQ youth mental health and suicide prevention. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Implications-of-COVID-19-for-LGBTQ-Youth-Mental-Health-and-Suicide-Prevention.pdf
James, S. (2020, June 16). Coronavirus economy especially harsh for transgender people. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/us/coronovirus-covid-transgender-lgbtq-jobs.html
Kim, J. (2020, June 23). U.S. 7-day average of coronavirus cases surges 30% from week ago. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/23/us-7-day-average-of-coronavirus-cases-surges-30percent-from-week-ago.html
Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Zongrone, A. D., Clark, C. M., & Truong, N. L. (2018). The 2017 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. http://live-glsen-website.pantheonsite.io/sites/default/files/2019-10/GLSEN-2017-National-School-Climate-Survey-NSCS-Full-Report.pdf
Maier, S. (2020, June 29). LGBTQ+ populations experience newfound anxiety and depression in COVID-19 pandemic. University of California-San Francisco. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2020/06/417931/lgbtq-populations-experience-newfound-anxiety-and-depression-covid-19-pandemic
Maxouris, C. (2020). New COVID-19 cases are declining across the US, official says, but that could quickly change if people aren’t careful. https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/20/health/us-coronavirus-thursday/index.html
National LGBT Cancer Network & Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. (2020, March 11). Open letter about coronavirus and the LGBTQ+ communities. https://cancer-network.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Press-Release-Open-Letter-LGBTQ-Covid19-1-2.pdf
Smith, K. (2020). Notre Dame suspends in-person classes after COVID-19 cases surge following off-campus parties. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/notre-dame-covid-cases-off-campus-party-classes-suspended
The Trevor Project. (2019). National survey on LGBTQ youth mental health. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/The-Trevor-Project-National-Survey-Results-2019.pdf
Yan, H., & Holcombe, M. (2020, June 17). 10 states are seeing their highest average of daily new Covid-19 cases since pandemic started. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/17/health/us-coronavirus-wednesday/index.html
Dorian Rhea Debussy, PhD, is the associate director for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kenyon College, where they support LGBTQ+ inclusivity initiatives both on and off campus. Their most recent work has been published by BUST Magazine, The Conversation, the Associated Press, and the Gay & Lesbian Review, among others.
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