What Schools Can Do To Reduce Risky Behaviors and Suicides Among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth

A high school English teacher in New Mexico told me about one of his students who had difficulty focusing in class. When the teacher showed concern, the student confided in him that her parents had kicked her sister out of the house after they found out she was dating a girl. The teacher tried his best to console the student and referred her to the school counselors for help.

The next year, the same girl sought his support when her parents took similar punitive measures against her because she, too, came out as a lesbian. This time he spoke openly with her, explaining that she had to keep her spirits up; that no matter what happened, she had to be true to herself. In concluding the story for me, the teacher explained that he knows the school needs to be a safe place in a community that may not accept his student. But even though he strives to create a safe environment, he does not think all staff people or students at the school are equally accepting.

At another high school, I heard something quite different. When asked about the experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, an administrator responded – simply and implausibly – “We don’t have any of those kids at this school.”

Such accounts from teachers, administrators, nurses, and counselors illustrate the importance of schools and school staff for students struggling with their sexual orientation in a world that does not always support or even acknowledge their existence. Paradoxically, schools are often the only places lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth may find marginally more accepting than the surrounding community – and of course schools may not be more accepting. The everyday traumas experienced by these youth, especially when they find themselves in schools that ignore their needs, can put lesbian, gay, and bisexual students at increased risk for depression, substance misuse, and suicide.

Research Links Suicide to Sexuality

According to the Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-fifths of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have seriously contemplated suicide. These young people are three times more likely to think about taking their own lives than their straight peers and four times more likely to actually plan and attempt suicide.

In addition to risk of suicide, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are twice as likely to be bullied or threatened with a weapon on campus and three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe. Risk behaviors that could result in negative health outcomes are also prevalent at a higher rate among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. For example, such young people have higher rates of smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, misusing prescription medicines, and using dangerous drugs including cocaine and heroin.

These statistics underline serious threats to many American young people. What can be done? The Center for Disease Control has identified several evidence-based ways to reduce the risk of suicide and risk behaviors among lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth – by creating safer and more supportive school environments. So far, however, these strategies have not been fully or consistently implemented, and they are only rarely combined to create an optimum response.

How Schools Can Help

Schools are a critical point of intervention because they are the places where students spend most of their waking hours. When it comes to reducing risky or suicidal behaviors, schools are second in importance only to families. School nurses and counselors also often provide the first line of response to student medical or behavioral health issues. In rural settings where resources can be scarce, the school or school-based health center may be the main place students can find support or help. Based on available evidence, the Center for Disease Control has defined several strategies that can be adopted and combined to ensure that all American young people are supported and protected, regardless of their sexual orientation. According to these recommendations, schools can take the following steps – and, to date, only eight percent of schools do all.

  • Create “safe spaces” like a designated classroom, office, or student organization where students can receive support from school staff or other students. Only about 60% of schools currently have such spaces available.
  • Prohibit bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender expression. Most schools report having such policies in place, but a fraction of them do not.
  • Facilitate access to medical health and behavioral health providers with experience serving lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Fewer than half of US. high schools facilitate such access.
  • Promote professional lessons on how staff can create safe and supportive school environments. Less than 60% of high schools provide this type of support to their faculty.
  • Deliver health education that includes information relevant to lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Only one-fourth of U.S. schools do this.

These strategies are an important way to address the needs of not only lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, but may also help transgender and gender non-conforming students as well. Unfortunately, research on these subgroups and programs to help them remains to be done. An important recent development is the inclusion a gender identity question in the 2017 Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey.

Recognizing the existence of sexual and gender minorities in America’s schools and gathering large-scale data about their experiences can provide a clearer picture of the challenges various groups of students face – and, in turn, allow improved responses to their needs. By creating safer and more supportive school environments, we can reduce dangerous behaviors, eliminate many suicides, and improve academic and health outcomes, not only for sexual and gender minority youth, but also for all other students in our schools. Problems and tragedies that affect some students reverberate among many – and undermine America’s future.

Leaving Abusive Relationships Is Especially Hard for People in Minority Communities

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Partners in abusive relationships — with psychopaths, narcissists, and other disordered individuals — often suffer in silence. This is especially true in marginalized communities.

Partners’ silence reinforces their isolation and reduces their capacity to end abuse and exploitation in these relationships.

What stops a partner from seeking help? Among the barriers to reaching out for a reality check — and support for leaving — are these common factors:

Shame. Partners worry that their association with a toxic person reflects poorly on them and that others will judge them if they know about the abuse they are tolerating. If they’ve left and returned, the shame feels greater.  Partners also often want to protect the “good reputation” of their toxic mate or the status the couple enjoys within a family or community.  If friends or family opposed coupling with the toxic person, the partner faces the shame of acknowledging the decision to ignore good advice and feels unworthy of support now.

Fear.  Partners of personality disordered people experience many kinds of fear as they contemplate seeking help. Fears range from the fear of retribution or stonewalling by the partner to the fear of being seen as crazy when they describe what is happening.  They sometimes fear that they cannot trust their own perceptions, or that they aren’t really seeing what they think they are seeing.

Hopelessness.  Partners may trust their perceptions that a relationship is toxic, and believe that others would sympathize with their situation, but still feel trapped by financial, cultural, and familial limitations.  As a result, they continue to suffer in silence, assuming that nowhere they turn will offer practical help in ending an exploitative relationship.

These three limitations affect partners of psychopaths and others with toxic personalities across categories of gender, sexual identity, race, religion, and relationship status.  For members of minority groups, barriers to seeking help are even greater.

Because members of marginalized groups are already stigmatized by society, they often work to “protect the reputation” of their communities, thinking that calling attention to dysfunction or violence within them reinforces negative stereotypes. For this reason, domestic violence and sexual assault are frequently under-reported within communities of color, religious minority groups, and LGBTQ communities.

In addition to the common forms of shame, fear, and helplessness that many victims feel, members of minority communities also experience fear that others will judge them for calling negative attention to the community.

They also fear that the legal system will not protect them as it should.  Because people from majority groups dominate criminal justice, legal, property, and financial systems, turning to people in authority to seek help with a toxic relationship is an extremely courageous and vulnerable act. But it could result in the system being unresponsive or shaming — or actually siding with the perpetrator.

In a worst case scenario, a victim could alienate friends, family, and community members by naming the problem and seeking help, only to find themselves treated poorly by the systems to which they have turned, resulting in more isolation and danger than if they had remained silent.

A famous example of how minority status increases vulnerability to psychopaths occurred in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, the infamous Milwaukee serial killer of gay men.

Dahmer was white. Many of his victims were poor men of color, men whose “missing” status would be less of a priority for white authorities to resolve. One of them, a 14-year-old Southeast Asian boy, Konerak Sinthasamphone, escaped Dahmer’s apartment, drugged, naked, and bleeding. African American witnesses called the police asking for assistance on his behalf.  White officers responded, only to return the minor to Dahmer, who had assured them that the two were a couple and everything was fine, despite the victim’s obvious distress.  Within moments of the police leaving the boy in Dahmer’s apartment, he was killed — a victim not only of the psychopath, but also of police ignorance, incompetence, and hostility toward minority people.

Aware of situations like these, victims from minority communities often seek help only with great caution, both when they face “stranger danger,” harassment, and hate crimes, and when they are victimized by intimate partners or family members. It is vital for people in the helping professions to be prepared to respond skillfully when people from minority populations take the risk of seeking help.

Police officers, lawyers, doctors, therapists, and clergy need an awareness of the patterns of victimization created by psychopaths and other troublesome people, as well as the special vulnerabilities of people in minority populations to exploitation and abuse.  When victims of toxic partners decide to reach out for help, we have a professional obligation to understand not only psychopathic abuse, but also what it means for a person in a minority community to come forward, to seek help, and, possibly, to exit their relationship.

Minority victims of toxic partners, like all victims, deserve to know that competent help is available when they take the important step to seek help, despite the barriers of shame, fear, and hopelessness.

Fare and Square Brings Hope to Those Living in a Food Desert

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Fare and Square – First Nonprofit Grocery Store

It seems counterintuitive, but many families live in a desert in the middle of the city. While some cities are located in the arid, hot variety of desert, there are also food deserts in many major American cities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a food desert as, “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” While there are often many bodegas, convenience stores, and fast food places in these areas, they area devoid of grocery stores and farmer’s markets, making it nearly impossible for their residents to access fresh food.

Living in a food desert and relying upon convenience foods for sustenance increases the risk of obesity and obesity related health problems. It is more costly, both due to the actual cost of food, and the cost of the associated health problems. Additionally, food deserts disproportionally effect minority and low-income families; 8% of African-American families live within a mile of a grocery store, compared to 31% of white families. Overall, 23.5 million people live in areas over one mile from a grocery store.

However, in spite of the disheartening statistics, there are creative solutions in many areas. One solution, in Chester, PA, is a non-profit grocery store. In addition to their already low prices, Fare & Square provides SNAP users with a discount, so that their food budget can stretch further.

While the solutions to food deserts seems fairly simple and obvious, build more grocery stores and/or encourage more farmers’ markets in low-income areas, the reality it is more complex. In the past several years, many new or expanded grocery stores have been built, and the federal government has allocated funds to ameliorate food deserts. However, in some areas, these expanded markets have not had the effect that many were hoping.

According to Steven Cummins, a professor of population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, for many people, shopping in a grocery store and preparing healthy food is not part of their routine. Perhaps they do not know what kinds of food to buy or how to make them, or perhaps despite the new, bigger stores, financially, fresh food continues to be out of reach.

As for Mr. Cummins’ observation that some people may not know how to prepare fresh foods, there are several programs which teach healthy and budget friendly cooking to low-income individuals and families. Cooking Matters, a project of Share Our Strength, provides hands on cooking classes and nutritional support to individuals and families who are facing food insecurity. During their six-week courses, participants learn everything from knife skills to budgeting techniques to reading ingredient labels.

Food deserts continue to pose a major problem to low-income families. For some, simply providing a store is not enough; programs are needed to support families in all aspects of healthy eating, including preparation, storage, and shopping. Hopefully, there will be more creative solutions to food deserts to help all families enjoy fresh and healthy foods in their diet.

Solidarity for Racial Justice and Non-violence

As a group of students, staff, and faculty at the University of Utah College of Social Work, we join our voices with those of other schools, agencies, and communities against recent acts of racism and violence in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, Phoenix, Saratoga Springs (UT) and elsewhere. We recognize our varying experiences with and participation in systems of power and privilege, oppression and discrimination, which make this conversation complex, risky, and uncertain.

utahswWe recognize that racial biases are often unconscious, and that even well-intentioned individuals may lack awareness of our own biases. Thus, this conversation and related actions are necessary aspects of raising our consciousness with respect to racism, systemic violence, and injustice, and taking steps toward healing in our communities and our nation. We are compelled to speak out for justice by our personal convictions and our professional values and ethics; to remain silent in the face of injustice is a privilege that we reject as collusion.

In 2009, African Americans comprised 13% of the U.S. population but 42% of inmates on death row. These national patterns are often reflected in Utah, as well. In Salt Lake City, the rate of arrest for black residents is more than four times that of non-black residents. Minority youth in Utah are significantly more likely than non-minority youth to have aggravated sanctions and longer sentences, while non-minority youth were more likely to have mitigating sanctions applied to their cases, leading to shorter sentences.

Media portrayal of recent events of racism and violence has contributed to a polarization of this issue in which those standing in solidarity with victims of violence are deemed to be anti-law enforcement. We reject this polarizing view of these events, and openly recognize that we are all socialized and implicated within a larger system of racism in our country. Aspects of structural and institutional racism occur within law enforcement, as well as within other professions and the social, political, and economic institutions in the U.S.

We unite as students, staff, and faculty to stand in solidarity with those already working toward racial justice through continued action to reduce racism and violence. Specifically, we seek to examine and change, where needed, the work that we do in our profession and education. We ask that the College of Social Work discuss and develop the following actions:

• Promote and implement College-wide activities that center social justice and equality in the culture and educational aims of the CSW.

• Develop and support dialogue between law enforcement, the criminal justice system, service providers and communities to help heal the wounds of violence and injustice, and to build bridges among participants.

• Collaborate with campus units, local agencies, colleges, and communities on anti-racism and social justice work.

• Encourage the BSW and MSW Program Advisory Committees to develop action plans to address current pressing social justice issues in classroom discussions in a timely fashion.

• Establish regular professional development for campus and field faculty with regard to implementing critical dialogue about privilege, power, oppression and racism.

• Establish an Anti-Racism Task Force within the College of Social Work.

We have grave concerns about observed and documented patterns of racial violence by law enforcement agents across the U.S., historically and currently. As Rev. Meg Riley has noted, “We are buried up to our necks in a history of violence and brutality against people of color.” We know that communities of color and other minority groups are disproportionately stopped and arrested by law enforcement, and prosecuted and incarcerated by the criminal justice system. Across this country we have witnessed too many incidents in which some law-enforcement agents have harassed, beaten, choked, and/or shot civilians – particularly black men – and it has been done with impunity.

As a school of social work, we are professionally mandated to center social justice and anti-oppressive practice for the improvement of human and social well-being. We join colleagues at Smith College School for Social Work in listening deeply and compassionately to the pain, grief, anger, fear and loss in families and communities struggling with these events. We join Portland State School of Social Work and others in continuing to transform our professional work into efforts that promote socially just, anti-racist services, programs, policies, and change.

Media Contact

Dr. Christina Gringeri | Ph:  801-581-4864 | christina.gringeri@socwk.utah.edu

University of Utah College of Social Work

Press Release: Social Work Helper Magazine was not involved in the creation of this content.

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