Kyson Ercanbrack: Hostile school environments lead to high suicide rates for LGBTQ students

Book bans and other anti-gay policies only make things worse.

Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune The SafeUT Crisis Text and Tip Line is a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program Ð right from your smartphone. Tuesday December 27, 2016.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah youth aged 10-17. Utah’s suicide rate is nearly double that of the national average and it only gets worse as you look at the impact on the LGBTQ community.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are three to four times more likely to die by suicide than their heterosexual peers in Utah, while transgender youth are eight to 10 times more likely. This is an issue that has been disregarded for too long due to long-time lack of support and discrimination towards populations disproportionately impacted by suicide.

A factor contributing to the alarming rates of suicide among LGBTQ youth is the lack of support within their learning environment. Negative and hostile school atmospheres impact all students in a poor way, however a lack of inclusive school policies and curriculum disproportionately impact queer and trans students more than heterosexual and cisgender students.

In these environments, LGBTQ students are faced with increased bullying, discrimination and lack of support within their community. When faced with an unaccepting school community, it can lead to poor academic performance, substance abuse, anxiety, suicidal ideation, among other mental health challenges.

Studies show, LGBTQ students in more positive school climates show lower risk of suicidality and report fewer depressive symptoms than those in more negative school climates. Creating a positive school climate is crucial so people of all identities feel welcome and have an equal opportunity to be successful.

As queer book bans, anti-trans education policies, and “Don’t Say Gay” bills creep into state legislatures across the country, including Utah, the LGBTQ mental health crisis in schools is only worsening. These insensitive policies do nothing to address discrimination and inclusivity in schools. Instead, these policies directly contribute to the high rate of suicidality among the LGBTQ community.

School policies can be created to help or hurt LGBTQ students and sadly many schools still institute policies that hurt the community, especially in Utah. The vast majority of Utah LGBTQ students report that they feel unsafe at school. These students should not have to choose between learning and personal safety.

In Utah, 98.8% of LGBTQ students reported they have heard anti-LGBTQ remarks in school, 68.7% reported they had been verbally harassed for being LGBTQ, and 25.7% reported being physically harassed, according to the 2019 National School Climate Survey.

Utah’s lack of LGBTQ inclusive school policies and resources, anti-discrimination education, and effective systems for dealing with discrimination reports contribute to making Utah’s school system one of the worst in the nation for LGBTQ students.

To combat Utah’s lack of inclusivity and the alarmingly high rates of LGBTQ suicidality, Utah must take steps to make the school system inclusive of all identities. One step is the implementation of LGBTQ inclusive policy in school. This could include anti-harassment and discrimination policies, as well as supportive transgender and non-binary policies.

Other steps that should be taken within the education system are including age appropriate LGBTQ topics in school curriculum and creating comprehensive systems to effectively respond to discrimination reports. Even simply acknowledging that LGBTQ people exist in school can make a profound difference in the way LGBTQ youth view themselves and the community.

While some politicians claim that introducing LGBTQ inclusive policies and curriculum into schools is “indoctrination,” these are baseless views. Introducing these topics in school can be as simple as teaching that you shouldn’t judge someone if they don’t fit the social norm, teaching LGBTQ history, or simply explaining that there is no right way to be a boy or girl. No one is indoctrinating kids, they are only teaching them that it is okay to be who they are.

That is what it is all about. It’s about letting LGBTQ youth know that they are not alone and that they are valid. For too many LGBTQ individuals, attending an unaccepting school that paints the LGBTQ community as abnormal or unwell has been a death sentence.

It’s time for Utah decision-makers to address the increasing mental health challenges that the LGBTQ community is facing by making public education and public services as a whole more inclusive and affirming to everyone.

Kyson Ercanbrack

Kyson Ercanbrack is senior at the University of Utah studying political science and is an intern with Alliance for a Better Utah.

Resources for those experiencing suicidal thoughts include the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, call 9-8-8; The Trevor Project’s LGBTQ Mental Health Resources 24/7 Lifeline, call 1-866-488-7386, or text START to 678678; Trans Lifeline, Call 877-565-8860, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. MST; the Safe Utah Smartphone App 24/7 crisis chat and tipline.