Sticks and stones? A closer look at LGBT mental health in schools
Imagine carrying around a ‘secret’ about your identity that feels so big, you wonder if it’s visible from streets away.
This is the experience of many young LGBT people who face stigma and bullying on a regular basis.
Stonewall’s recent report into LGBT people in schools is a case in point. Nearly half of LGB pupils experience bullying in schools, according to the report, and rates for trans children are higher still.
Children sitting their exams at school (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Successive governments recognise the importance of investing in children’s mental health, and the role of schools in developing wellbeing and recognising mental health needs. Yet the figures don’t indicate enough of an improvement.
YoungMinds estimates that one in four of all young people experience thoughts of ending their life, Stonewall reports that nine in ten trans pupils have had such thoughts, as do seven in ten lesbian, gay and bi pupils.
A recurring theme in the Stonewall report is the fact that LGBT children do not feel safe in school and often do not feel that they can talk to an adult. This very often stems from the stigma that is all too often harboured against LGBT people.
Gender and sexual identities are not diseases. They do not need ‘treating’. They are core components of one’s internal world and can affect every aspect of life.
Making the world a safer and more hospitable place for everyone, right from the start, is a key component of child and adolescent mental health services, which heavily endorse early intervention.
This means learning to recognise children who are struggling with their learning and emotional states so that we can address difficulties quickly, maintaining self-esteem and reducing secondary problems such as severe anxiety. Clear training packages have been enabled for teachers to recognise conditions such as ADHD, and learn how to refer children to health services.
Schools that are committed to ensuring the safety and happiness of all their pupils are already being noticed. One parent in Manchester described the positive impact of a school in recognising her child’s gender identity: “At 15 our son told us he was trans. Prior to this, his low mood made school attendance difficult. We quickly adopted his preferred name and pronouns, and the school asked us how to best support him to sit his GCSEs. Good two-way communication was critical in securing the support he needed. He achieved 6 A*-Bs awarded in his new name.”
While this school showed exemplary support of their pupil, the experiences of many LGBT students and families are not as positive. Often LGBT pupils face problems in the most basic of situations.
Toilets, for example, present obstacles, as do gendered uniforms, both of which can cause great distress. Stonewall reports that two in five LGBT pupils are not taught about LGBT issues at school, while three in four LGBT pupils do not learn about gender identity and what ‘trans’ means.
If something as central to a young person’s world as their gender or sexuality is not correctly handled in the microcosm of society which is their school, then this makes it very difficult for LGBT students to achieve their academic potential and simultaneously look after their own mental health.
Schools are key to the lives of children; not only does education provide skills and qualifications, but it also offers an alternate perspective to home life. Many people remember mentors and role models who allowed them to pursue different trajectories to the ones chosen by family members.
Schools also provide a safety net; staff are trained to spot signs of abuse and educational and mental health needs. The steps to make schools safer for LGBT pupils can be incredibly simple, such as displaying posters for LGBT youth groups and providing sex education for same-sex relationships.
Thankfully, we are slowly moving further towards a society that provides professionals with the training that they need to support the developing gender and sexual identity of children. In Manchester, there is a network of young people and agencies working together to deliver training and develop a trans ‘kitemark’ for services to apply for.
Anything is easier to face with knowledge. To empower the next generation, we must work together to teach schools about young people’s gender and sexual identity needs.
Dr Louise Theodosiou is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and wrote this piece in conjunction with young LGBT person Fin Webb.