For homeless LGBT youth, finishing school can cause more distress than dropping out

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Research Review by Michael A. Tew

Increased research attention has been paid to the many problems faced by LGBT homeless youth (estimated to comprise 20% or more of all homeless youth, National Coalition for the Homeless). Communities are becoming more aware of the high levels of sexual and physical abuse, mental health problems, suicide, and other forms of victimization faced by this at-risk population. Similarly, research over the last decade has documented the experiences of LGBT youth in school environments. A leader in reporting on school climate for sexual minority youth, GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network) has collected significant amounts of data regarding the extent to which LGBT youth experience bullying, adverse learning outcomes, dropout rates, and, conversely, limited improvements in school support systems (such as GSA’s –Gay/Straight Alliance groups- and more sensitive staff). A new study, published in the Journal of Homosexuality (January 2014) brings attention to the intersection of these two critical LGBT youth issues. Ultimately the study, “shed(s) a disquieting light on the educational experiences, needs, and accomplishments of LGBT homeless youth as well as how school, home, and high school completion intersect with psychological distress.”

Researcher Mark P Bidell, Ph.D. emphasizes the relationship between home and school environments as contributors to seriously problematic outcomes for sexual minority youth. Homeless LGBT youth
• Came out in either middle school or high school (68%)
• Dropout at a rate of between 39% and 47%.
• Are uncomfortable or unwilling to communicate issues to school staff (80% never talked to a teacher, 70% never talked to a counselor, 85% never talked to an administrator) about issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity.
• Less than one fourth reported that they came from a school with a GSA (compared to 45% amongst their non-homeless counterparts).

What this all adds up to is that school, for homeless LGBT youth is a tough environment leading to evidence a potentially twice the likelihood of clinical levels of psychological distress when compared to non-homeless LGBT youth. “ The higher rates of psychological distress among those that completed high school might also help explain the elevated high school dropout rate among LGBT homeless youth found in this study. Dropping out of school and leaving home may be adaptive ways to cope with negative environments and help lessen psychological distress. “
These results are consistent with findings about homeless sexual minority youth as related to non-school social support situations. LGBTQ youth don’t always feel safe in the foster homes, homeless shelters, and social systems that are in place. They can still experience violence, rejection, and shaming while making use of these services. (February 28, 2013, Jarune Uwujaren Everyday Feminism).

School and home are the two most significant sources of support for youth, whether LGBT or not. When neither is providing support, the consequences are significant. Of course, we need to systemically address the availability of support for sexual minority youth, particularly homeless youth. This study offers important information enabling schools, parents, and communities to do so in ways that demonstrate understanding; ways that create support rather than psychological distress.

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About Equality Research Center

The mission of the Equality Research Center is to promote, support, and disseminate research focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender equality and human rights. The Center is dedicated to the advancement of Equality by connecting academic, evidence based research to community action, public policy, and curricular innovation.
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