Colorado survey: Supportive adults can reduce LGBT teenagers’ risk of suicide and substance abuse

CDPHE’s 2015 Healthy Kids Survey showed LGBT students who lack adequate support systems at home and in-school experience higher risk for suicide and substance abuse.

Students in a classroom. (ASU Department of English/Flickr)
Students in a classroom. (ASU Department of English/Flickr)
Students in a classroom. (ASU Department of English/Flickr)

New findings from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment’s 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, released earlier this summer, reinforced an all too familiar narrative: LGBT students are at much higher risk for bullying, mental health issues and substance abuse than their straight and cisgender counterparts.

No formal programming has yet been outlined to address the survey’s findings, but the data reinforces that supportive home and school environments and extracurricular activities significantly reduce risk. And resources are available.

“Bias, stigma and discrimination can lead to poor health for LGBT youth,” Leo Kattari, survey coordinator at the state health department said in a statement. “But social factors that make young people feel safe and supported can reduce the behaviors that put them at risk every day.”

The Department of Public Health and the Environment works with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of Colorado to provide training to school personnel, parents and students on how to foster healthy environments for LGBT students.

The website also contains links to resources that help parents respond to bullying.

Here’s what we know about the risks facing transgender youth:

Researchers randomly distribute surveys to Colorado students in grades six through 12. This year, about 16,000 students participated, according to the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment.

The survey data found that transgender students experience bullying about twice as often, miss school due to feeling unsafe about five times as often and feel sad and hopeless about twice as often as their cisgender classmates. They are more than twice as likely to consider suicide and about five times as likely to attempt suicide.

And transgender students have higher instances of routinely engaging in or experimenting with substances. When compared to cisgender students, they experiment with substances, ranging from inhalants to heroin, about six to 25 times as often as their peers.

For lesbian, gay and bisexual-identifying students, the risks are reduced, but they are still twice as likely to be bullied at school or online, three times as likely to miss school due to feeling unsafe and more than twice as likely to feel sad or hopeless as straight classmates. They also consider or attempt suicide and use drugs or alcohol more often — though not quite to the same degree as transgender students.

Supportive adults can make a big difference.

The survey went on to detail access to support systems, either through a parent or guardian or through participation in extracurricular activities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey found that LGBT students felt less able or willing to turn to adults for help, but for those who did reach out, the results were noticeably improved.

LGBT students who have a supportive adult to turn to at school are two to three times less likely to attempt suicide and about two times less likely to experience bullying, whether in school or online, than their peers.

Transgender students enrolled in extracurricular activities are 1.6 times less likely to attempt suicide and four times less likely to use marijuana regularly.

“As trusted adults, we can bolster the health and well-being of LGBT youth by ensuring they have a welcoming place to go, trusted adults to talk to and inclusive activities that allow them to express themselves and have fun,” Mary Malia, executive director of Inside/Out Youth Services, an LGBT youth-serving organization in El Paso County, said in a statement.

Multimedia business & healthcare reporter Chloe Aiello can be reached via email at caiello@denverite.com or twitter.com/chlobo_ilo.

Subscribe to Denverite’s newsletter here.