LAWRENCE — “We’re all in this together” has been a common refrain during the COVID-19 pandemic. It turns out that’s not the case for many LGTBQ youths, as University of Kansas researchers illustrate in a new publication.
Megan Paceley, assistant professor of social welfare at KU, and colleagues have written an essay forthcoming in the journal Qualitative Social Work in which they challenge the narrative for queer and trans youths. Through discussions with a youth advisory board, the authors illustrate how the unique challenges LGTBQ youths face, including social isolation and lack of access to mental health services, belie the idea of a shared experience.
“We had a lot of ideas based on our own experiences and research. We decided we didn’t just want to write about this group, but include them,” Paceley said. “This was in the midst of schools closing and everything shutting down. They were very reflective. If this is happening for this handful of youth, we know it’s happening across the country, and we as social workers need to be aware of it.”
Paceley facilitated a virtual conversation with members of The Pride Alliance, a leadership board of 15- to 19-year-old queer and transgender youths. They shared their experiences and challenges in living in a pandemic as well as recommendations for what they felt social workers could do to help. The article co-authors are Sloan Okrey-Anderson of the University of Minnesota-St. Paul, Jessica Fish of the University of Maryland, Lauren McInroy of Ohio State University and Malcolm Lin of KU.
Among the most prominent themes the teens shared was isolation. Many people feel isolated in the time of social distancing, but for the youths in the study it was especially acute, as many could no longer meet with support groups or allies. Some were unable to talk with therapists any longer as they were confined to their homes, some with unsupportive parents who listen to their phone calls and virtual chats, while others were not out to their parents yet. When asked how they were getting support, some said they were not. Others said they were able to stay in touch with their community and supporters through text, video chat or other means, but that they felt that connection was not as strong as in-person meeting and did not fully meet the supportive nature of physical meeting and conversation.
That lack of community and physical interaction often manifested itself in the form of negative mental health outcomes, the youths said. Many indicated they had increased feelings of depression, suicidal thoughts and gender dysphoria due to isolation, not being able to authentically present at home or because of gaining weight due to coping with stress through eating.
“They certainly talked about feeling more suicidal,” Paceley said. “It’s hard for all of us, but especially for young people who are queer or trans. The youths showed that this isn’t a shared experience. My experience as a white, middle-class adult is different from theirs.”
While challenges and negative consequences of the pandemic and resulting isolation were plentiful, the youths in the study did share ways service providers, researchers, families and allies can all help. Primarily, helping the young people not feel so alone would go a long way, they said. Supportive adults reaching out to check in is helpful. And flexibility in how they can do so was vital, as many are living in unsupportive situations. Whereas some of the youths could only talk with supporters through school or community-based programs that were no longer available, being able to access services through telehealth, text- or app-based means could be helpful, they reported.
When adults do make contact, it would be helpful to simply validate their situation, the teens said. While they reported appreciating the good intentions of adults who reached out, telling them “everything will be OK” and only focusing on the positives was not always helpful. By letting the youths know they understand their situation is difficult and asking how they would like help, supportive adults could make a difference, they said.
Lastly, the youths indicated they need queer resources. A general suicide hotline is not helpful if they needed to be sure they could talk about being transgender with someone who is affirming, the authors wrote. Social workers at all levels should be aware of local and national hotlines; online support groups; peer, parent and professional support; and digital access to books, magazines and other resources through libraries and other means, they added.
The essay was centered on the teens' experiences in April, during the initial height of the pandemic. However, the findings can be helpful beyond documenting the experiences of a vulnerable population, Paceley said.
“I think one of the things beyond COVID that this study has shown me is the need to be more flexible,” she said. “Really centering the needs of people experiencing this trauma is important, and hopefully, we can translate these findings to other problems.”