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LGBTQ+ college students with access to mental health and LGBTQ+-specific services through their institution are significantly less likely to seriously consider or attempt suicide, according to a new survey by the Trevor Project.
The organization, a nonprofit aimed at preventing LGBTQ+ youth suicide, surveyed 33,993 LGBTQ+ college students attending two-year institutions, four-year institutions and graduate schools. Participants were recruited through targeted social media ads.
About a third of the respondents said that they had seriously considered suicide within the past year, and 7 percent said they had attempted suicide in that time period. Both figures were higher among students of color and those who identify as transgender or nonbinary.
But having access to mental health or LGBTQ+ support services at college reduced suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, the survey found. While 46 percent of students without access to mental health services said they had seriously considered suicide and 22 percent said they had attempted suicide within the past year, those rates were 32 percent and 6 percent, respectively, among students with access to such services.
Access to LGBTQ+-specific resources showed a similar benefit: 30 percent of students with access to college LGBTQ+ services had seriously considered suicide, and 6 percent had attempted suicide, compared to 41 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of those without such access.
Researchers who conducted the study said they weren’t surprised by the findings. But they noted that the results demonstrate why it’s so vital for colleges and universities to invest in mental health and LGBTQ+ services.
“It lets colleges know just how important this stuff is,” said Myeshia Price, director of research science for the Trevor Project. “I think sometimes, colleges have this reputation of, ‘Of course we’re open and of course we’re affirming, of course we support LGBTQ+ people,’ but I think it’s important that they do everything they can to show that, so that young people are not questioning if that’s the case.”
The majority of LGBTQ+ students surveyed—86 percent—reported that their college offered mental health services. Some, however, said they experienced barriers when accessing those services: 33 percent reported that they did not feel comfortable going, 29 percent said their campus mental health center had long wait lists and 17 percent expressed privacy concerns.
Sixty-three percent of LGBTQ+ college students reported that their university had some type of LGBTQ+-specific resources, such as an LGBTQ+ center, available to students.
The survey also found that 89 percent of respondents consider their school to be accepting of LGBTQ+ people—meaning that they had answered either “somewhat” or “a lot” to the question “How accepting is your college/university of LGBTQ people?” (The other possible answers were “not at all” and “a little bit”). That number was lower among students who reported their campus didn’t offer LGBTQ+-specific services, with 45 percent of that group saying that their college was unaccepting of LGBTQ+ students.
Shane Mendez Windmeyer, executive director for Campus Pride, a nonprofit aimed at making colleges safer for LGBTQ+ individuals, was surprised that so many college students felt that their school was accepting, noting that this typically varies from institution to institution.
“Most LGBTQ students report that the climate—their feelings of belonging, safety and inclusion—in college is better than the one they experienced in high school. And evidence exists that overall, campus climate has improved over the last 15 years,” Windmeyer wrote in an email. “Yet this progress is not consistent across institutions. Reports of harassment and discrimination, especially for transgender students, remain a problem at a time when student learning and persistence are central issues for higher education leaders.”
Recently, said Windmeyer, LGBTQ+ college students have reported instances of harassment in the classroom, as well as cyberbullying and racist and sexist language in conjunction with homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.
“Research on campus climate generally and LGBTQ climate specifically points to the negative consequences of hostile climates for student learning, persistence in college and mental health and wellness,” they said.
Achieving a representative sample in such surveys is difficult, Windmeyer said, because there is no good way to contact only individuals who identify as LGBTQ+. (This paragraph has been amended to more accurately capture Windmeyer's perspective.)
“It is an ongoing challenge we have, because sometimes when you’re asking questions, you’re going to [only] get the people who want to share, which can skew the results one way or another,” they told Inside Higher Ed in an interview.
Price, of the Trevor Project, acknowledged that the methodology can have its shortcomings but said that the findings still have merit.
“All research carries a potential for bias, not only from participants in a study, but also from things like the framing of the questions, or the dissemination of the research,” they said. “While there are ways to mitigate bias, there is no way to fully remove it from research. It may be just as likely that we have an oversample of college students who have negative on-campus experiences and resort to online communities for affirmation and support. There’s no way to offset students’ positive experiences on campus in this analysis, because that’s precisely what we’re exploring. Different assessments of LGBTQ acceptance may garner different rates of endorsement and can’t be compared one to one.”
Over all, Windmeyer agreed that the survey was useful, especially as a clear call to administrators to begin or continue investing in supports for LGBTQ+ students.
“Campuses that do take responsibility, do have support services for LGBTQ students, the students there are not at as high risk of suicidality and other forms of depression,” they said. “They’ll be able to get better grades; they’ll be able to succeed academically if they get that support.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. Dial 988 for help.