The Role of Schools in Supporting the Mental Health of Young People who Identify as LGBTQ: A 10-Point Plan
A research paper by Poštuvan et al (2019) explains that young people who identify as belonging to a sexual minority are two or three times more at risk of suicidal behaviour than their peers who do not belong to a sexual minority.
Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender are more likely to develop mental ill health. Risk factors for mental ill health for sexual minorities include: homelessness; the experience of homophobia, biphobia or transphobia; perceived micro-aggressions towards sexual minorities; self-hatred; social rejection and fear of being shamed on social media (Poštuvan et al., 2019). Although we are aware of these risk factors through research, there is limited research to date into the protective factors which can mitigate the risk factors.
According to Poštuvan et al (2019) key protective factors include: creating a sense of belonging; ensuring adequate social support; parental support; personal resilience; a positive school climate and self-affirming strategies, including activism. Thus, the implications for schools and colleges in relation to these protective factors warrants further consideration.
First, leadership teams in schools and colleges should demonstrate a strategic commitment to promoting LGBTQ inclusion through developing a clear policy which is consistently implemented in practice. Leaders should ensure that LGBTQ inclusion is part of the improvement plan and is an item for discussion in leadership meetings and governing body meetings. Leaders should demonstrate that they are strong allies of the school or college LGBTQ community regardless of whether they belong to a sexual minority themselves. Appointing a dedicated leader to champion LGBTQ inclusion provides a clear signal that the leadership team is invested in this area of work and appointing a dedicated governor to liaise with the lead staff member is another way of demonstrating that strategic commitment. Schools and colleges should develop a clear policy on how to respond when a student ‘comes out’, including what to say and what not to say.
Second, the school or college climate should be positive. Diversity should be viewed as an energising aspect of school or college life which enriches people’s experiences. The climate should engender the values of equality, respect, inclusion, care and democracy and these values should be evident in the quality of the relationships and interactions between people within the organisation. Young people’s differences should be celebrated, valued and positively affirmed.
Third, all young people should be provided with access to a curriculum which promotes LGBTQ inclusion. LGBTQ inclusion should be taught both discretely and integrated through the curriculum. For example, the digital curriculum should address forms of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia online through developing digital citizenship, digital literacy and digital resilience. This approach to LGBTQ inclusion ensures that the school or college is being proactive about shaping attitudes and values. It is insufficient for young people to know that it is unacceptable to voice homophobic, biphobic or transphobic comments. This could result in prejudice being ‘locked in’ and silenced rather than being expressed. Instead, young people need to know that it is wrong for them to even think of such comments in the first place. Addressing the former is relatively easy with a clear anti-bullying policy but addressing the latter is more challenging. Changing behaviours is one thing but changing attitudes and values is where deep inclusion really starts to become evident. Anti-bullying policies do play a critical role in keeping young people safe but they are reactive. If the prejudice still exists then inclusion only operates at surface level.
Fourth, all staff need to undertake professional learning and development on LGBTQ inclusion. Some colleagues will need to be given opportunities to reflect on their own values. Training on identifying micro-aggressions is also critical so that staff can identify when these occur. Young people also need to be educated about micro-aggressions.
Fifth, schools and colleges should consider how to empower students who identify as LGBTQ through developing a range of strategies which promote student voice. One way of doing this is to position students who identify as LGBTQ as researchers. They could take responsibility for researching the curriculum, the school environment, the resources, the policies and the climate in the changing rooms and playgrounds. They could carry out interviews and focus groups with peers to ascertain whether there is a culture of deep inclusion for students who identify as LGBTQ. The student researchers (or ambassadors or champions) could disseminate their research findings to the leadership team and to The Governing Body. They might also lead workshops for peers and staff.
Six, providing ‘safe spaces’ for students who are LGBTQ to meet informally during the day is a useful approach for facilitating a strong sense of identity. However, separating out one group of students can result in an ‘othering’ effect which might result in stigma. Developing LGBTQ-straight alliances is a more effective way of utilising safe spaces and clearly signals a powerful message to the rest of the school.
Seven, developing strong pastoral provision for students who identify as LGBTQ is essential so that they have someone to talk to. Peer mentoring systems can also be effective. Counselling services can be beneficial but it is important not to pathologise young people by referring them to counselling because they identify as LGBTQ. This can result in resentment. After all, their identity doesn’t need fixing! However, if their experiences have resulted in mental ill health, counselling may be required. Clear policies on when to refer students to external services should be developed so that staff know what factors might result in a referral and how to refer students on.
Eight, working in partnerships with parents and carers is essential. Before launching an LGBTQ curriculum, it is advisable to talk to parents about what you are planning to do and why you are doing it. They may need to be reassured that you are not promoting a specific sexuality and neither are you promoting sex. Schools may also need to support some parents to develop acceptance towards their child if they have discovered that their child identifies as LGBTQ.
Nine, develop a Relationships and Sex Education curriculum which teaches young people about diverse forms of relationships. An age-appropriate sex education curriculum which introduces young people to sexual issues is also important.
Ten (last but definitely not least), challenge gender stereotypes . Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia often originate from stereotypical views of how males and females are ‘expected’ to behave. Young people need to understand that these stereotypes are socially constructed rather than truths. Stories which challenge gender stereotypes are powerful tools for addressing prejudice.
The article cited in this blog can be found here.
Jonathan is Professor of Inclusive Education. His research focuses on LGBTQ+ inclusion and mental health. He is a researcher, teacher educator and qualified teacher.