Connection and Community Can Save Lives: A Pride Month Message from JED’s Chief Medical Officer

By Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth

This Pride I’m reflecting on the importance of connection and community for LGBTQIA+ teens and young adults. 

In his recent report on the “Epidemic of Loneliness,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy pointed out that social disconnection can be as fatal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. However, social connection is one of the best ways to improve mental health and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. 

One of the groups that needs that now, more than ever, is LGBTQIA+ youth, who are at higher risk for mental health issues than their cisgender and heterosexual peers due to societal stigma and discrimination. Statistics from the Trevor Project tell us that “41% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year” and “14% of LGBTQ young people attempted suicide.” They are also contending with a slate of legislation nationwide designed to erase their identities

In addition to my role at The Jed Foundation (JED) as its Chief Medical Officer, I work as a psychiatrist with queer and trans young people at Hetrick-Martin Institute for LGBTQIA+ Youth. My clients often talk to me about bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Almost all of them take these experiences personally, viewing the attacks as a reflection of their personal worth.

When that happens, it’s my job as a mental health provider to help them identify and uncover the larger issues at play. For example: Were LGBTQIA+ teens kicked out of their homes because their parents were influenced by the homophobic communities where they grew up? Were LGBTQIA+ young people bullied because their schools mirrored prejudices built into society? 

When my clients begin to understand that the roots of their negative experiences come from factors much bigger than themselves, it’s a first step toward removing their sense of personal guilt, blame, and shame. We talk about the fact that many other LGBTQIA+ people have shared similar experiences, which helps them see that they are not alone. This often motivates them to take the next steps in their journey toward improved mental health. 

At JED, our approach to promoting emotional well-being and preventing suicide for teens and young adults has always acknowledged the mental health benefits of feeling connected to something greater than yourself. Pride is an appropriate time to consider how this approach is useful when it comes to protecting the well-being of LGBTQIA+ youth, at a moment in history when their identities are under attack.

For as much pride and joy as queer and trans communities will express and share this month, it’s important to acknowledge that there is also a long history of resistance and resilience. For young people, knowing that they have a place in that living history can help root them in a world larger than themselves. Whether they go online to learn more or meet up with local activists in their neighborhoods, this is an opportunity to forge essential connections with others with similar life experiences—as well as the people who want to support them in overcoming any obstacles they may be facing. 

Here are some ways to be a part of a supportive community for LGBTQIA+ youth: 

  • Family members should ensure that the young people in their lives feel seen and supported. Research shows that LGBTQIA+ individuals in supportive homes report significantly lower rates of attempting suicide, whereas suicide attempt rates are highest in communities deemed “very unaccepting” of LGBTQIA+ communities. 

According to the Trevor Project, the five most effective ways for parents or caregivers to demonstrate support to LGBTQIA+ youth are:

  • Welcome LGBTQIA+ friends and partners
  • Talk respectfully about LGBTQIA+ identities
  • Use preferred names and pronouns
  • Support gender expression
  • Educate yourself about LGBTQIA+ issues
  • You can also share resources with young people in your families, including:
  • Educators/administrators should advocate for and help to enforce school climates where LGBTQIA+ students feel safe. At JED, we know that these campuses are where all students tend to feel the most secure and supported. Even actions that may seem small, like using a student’s preferred name and pronouns or sponsoring a Gender-Sexuality Alliance, can make a big difference for LGBTQIA+ students. School counseling centers should also be equipped to address common stressors experienced by LGBTQIA+ students, to best provide tailored and effective support. For more information and recommendations for educators, see JED’s Proud and Thriving Framework.
  • Community leaders can create spaces for mentorship, activism, and collaboration in order to reduce isolation and encourage social connectedness. From community gardens and civic engagement projects to after-school programs and volunteer youth groups, it can be life-changing to simply sponsor or help launch opportunities for youth to connect with their peers, those who have been through similar life experiences, and allies. In his report on the “Epidemic of Loneliness,” the Surgeon General stated that, in addition to formal policies, fostering social connectedness will rely upon “the informal practices of everyday life—the norms and culture of how we engage one another.”
  • Policymakers must push back against legislation that seeks to censor or penalize expressions of sexual orientation or gender identity, or limit access to gender-affirming medical care. As more families feel forced to flee their home states because of these bans, state legislators in particular have a duty to institute stronger LGBTQIA+ protections. Additionally, more must be done to support the 28% of LGBTQIA+ youth who face homelessness or housing instability because of their identities.  

This Pride Month, I’m grateful to be surrounded by a talented and motivated team that is committed to doing their part to drive change—and save lives. At The Jed Foundation, we know the impact that caring individuals can have in the lives of LGBTQIA+ teens and young adults, and our mission explicitly involves facilitating connections at home, in schools, online, and in person throughout the United States. 

But we all still have work to do to ensure that LGBTQIA+ youth feel supported and safe, and to ensure they have—at minimum—the same opportunities to thrive as their peers. 

As a psychiatrist and as the Chief Medical Officer of JED, I will continue to help these young people place themselves in the world as part of something bigger: a history, a tradition, a community. I invite others to join in by using their voices and influence to do the same for the LGBTQIA+ youth in their lives.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.