As the Fall 2022 semester marks, for most students, the full, unrestricted return to campus, many students have spent the last few months anxious about how they’ll make the shift back to in-person learning, how they might be able to manage their time between an abundance of ambitions that were shelved during the pandemic, and how soon they’ll be able to make new friends, or finally reunite with current ones. But for LGBTQIA+ students, such feelings of anxiety are a product of concerns about access to two fundamental needs: the need for safety and security, and the need to belong.
The pandemic proved to be a tumultuous time for LGBTQIA+ students. Findings from a new brief released by The Trevor Project reveal that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation among LGBTQIA+ youth have all increased since 2020—with rates of anxiety (73 percent) and suicidal ideation (45 percent) each seeing the biggest jump, rising by 5 percentage points in the span of two years. Even while depression (58 percent) peaked in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, rates have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, leaving cause for concern among researchers and LGBTQIA+ youth advocates that these numbers will continue to grow into 2023.
These outcomes are due to a number of different factors: having to move back home to potentially toxic or dangerous living environments, in which students might not be out or might face harassment, abuse, or disownment from their families as a result of their identity; losing access to their established community and circle of like-minded or affirming friends on campus; and losing access to vital resources and services including counseling services, cultural centers, and student organizations can all greatly undermine LGBTQIA+ students’ perceived sense of safety and security. Compounded by a prolonged period of anxiety and uncertainty about the state of one’s future and the conditions of one’s health and the health of their friends, family, and loved ones, it is unsurprising that these circumstances took such a heavy toll on students’ mental health and overall wellbeing.
But even as these students head back to campus in an effort to return to their pre-pandemic lives, they still face significant threats to their health and wellbeing—perhaps now even more so than before. Following what some LGBTQIA+ advocates have dubbed the “worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks,” just the first three months of 2022 alone saw more than 300 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills introduced across the United States, an overwhelming majority of them targeting transgender youth and their access to bathrooms, sports, and healthcare, while others targeted curricula and school conduct—banning materials or lesson plans that promote LGBTQIA+ representation, limiting the pronouns that students and faculty can use, and placing restrictions on school clubs.
While these bills pertain to public primary and secondary schools, their effects can still be felt by all LGBTQIA+ students living in their communities, as they add to the concerning rise in widespread anti-LGBTQIA sentiments that permeates just about every facet of society, including higher education. Just this past month, for example, Yeshiva University announced that it would be suspending all student clubs as part of the school’s latest efforts to block a Pride Alliance group from being recognized as an official campus club. Meanwhile, students and staff at Seattle Pacific University have started to take legal action against the university’s board of trustees for refusing to hire queer faculty. This comes as a new brief from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism suggests that this year is already set to supplant last year’s record total of 8,896 reported hate crimes—the highest total since 2001’s record high following the 9/11 attacks—as rates of anti-LGBTQIA crimes increased more than twofold (51 percent) in most major US cities within just the first half of 2022; while findings from a May report from the Williams Institute revealed that about a third of LGBTQIA+ students surveyed have experienced assault, bullying, and harassment while on campus.
With that said, for institutions seeking to support their LGBTQIA+ students on campus, the time to act is now. As increasingly hostile political and social climates continue to disrupt these students’ peace and wellness—antagonizing their lifestyle, threatening their safety and security, and upending their educational, career, or networking experiences—it is now crucial to the health and wellbeing of these students that they have prompt and adequate access to culturally competent mental health services, affirming student groups, clubs, and organizations, supportive peers, faculty, and staff, and a safe space to be their authentic selves. In order to provide this, campus leaders must have a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of the unique needs and circumstances of their LGBTQIA+ students.
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