It’s becoming increasingly apparent this year that the mental health of teenagers in the UK is in an unimaginably poor state. A new survey found that one in three young people suffer from issues such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. This follows a report released this summer that states that 22% of 14-year-old girls have self-harmed, in comparison to 9% of boys of the same age. Even more disconcerting is the fact that this rate jumped to a staggering 46% for teenagers who are gay or bisexual.
The root of the gender disparity in these figures may be found in the unique societal pressure on teenage girls concerning their appearance. However, the mental health divide between straight and LGBT teenagers can’t be overlooked and is a stark reminder of the issues faced by many vulnerable young people.
In recent years the stigma attached to homo- and bisexuality has arguably declined as huge strides have been made towards equality, such as the legalisation of gay marriage in 2014. But figures on the mental health of LGBT teenagers show they are still struggling disproportionately. Over half of gay and bisexual young people have experienced bullying based on their sexuality and commonly experience depression because of it. Figures show that 23% of gay teenagers have tried to commit suicide, compared to 7% of young people overall.
Empowering events like Pride and the fierce battle for better representation in the media offer an inspiring and celebratory vision of acceptance, but this is simply not the case for many young people. The knowledge that their sexuality makes them an outsider places a burden on LGBT teenagers that their peers do not face.
Feelings of alienation that stem from the pre-existing pressures of adolescence are exacerbated. Understandably, for someone who is not accepted, homophobia can become internalised and the prejudices and pressures of the outside world can be mimicked in self-harm and isolation.
Indeed, coming out is not something that just happens once - especially for young people who are just beginning to build their circles, it must be reaffirmed with every new social interaction. Due to ingrained societal prejudice, it’s likely that some of those encounters will be negative or even verbally or physically abusive.
There are particular struggles for bisexual teenagers. Anxiety about acceptance that can affect people of all non-straight identities can be compounded for bisexual people because of fears of not fitting into one specific community - they are read by society as gay in homosexual relationships and straight in heterosexual ones. This feeling of erasure creates an isolating space for bisexual people and can generate both internalised homophobia and doubt around the legitimacy of their sexuality.
The risk of mental health problems is at its highest however for transgender teenagers, 45% of whom have attempted suicide. This points to an utter lack of support for these young people, a societal absence of empathy that we will look back on in shame.
Reforming the Gender Recognition Act could allow for young people aged 16 to be legally recognised as the gender they are - without going through a convoluted and degrading process that seems designed to be as exhausting and dissuasive as possible. It would help young people feel comfortable and safe in places such as schools where they are most deserving of protection.
We must recognise the conditions that have lead so many to take their lives and let the potential of the reform mark the beginning of serious change. The numbers of LGBT teenagers harming themselves show they are being failed by their health services and their schools. As well as homophobic bullying and depression, they face disproportionately higher rates of homelessness, substance abuse, and jail time later in life. The lack of tailored and inclusive help available for vulnerable gay and trans teens is a funnel to lifelong problems.
What is needed to solve the mental health crisis among LGBT youth is no less than a infrastructure of support that works. Professionals in schools and doctors’ practices must understand the particularities of concerns affecting gay, trans, and bi teens. Currently, more than half of young people aren’t taught anything about LGBT issues in school.
While a lack of support across society - in health, education, housing - for LGBT people is endemic of a society that is still pervaded with trans- and homophobia and has a lack of regard for the vulnerable, support for young people is particularly crucial at this moment. It’s vital that we act before more lives are needlessly lost.
The future belongs to LGBT teenagers - we must give them the proper help so they can believe it.