LGBTQ Teens: How Gay-Straight Alliances Boost Mental Health

Adolescence is a turbulent time for any teen. As the developing brain prioritizes sensation, learning, and exploration over risk mitigation, teens navigate a precarious path toward self-actualization and learn to build strong relationships both within and outside their peer groups.

While recent research reframes adolescent risk-taking behavior as a natural adaptation – part of an instinctive push toward learning experiences that can lead to self-sufficiency – the facts remain that the teen years can be tumultuous, and many teens need extra support to emerge safely on the other side in young adulthood.

This is true for every teen, but for members of marginalized populations, the risks of adolescence can be more pronounced. Teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender have long been targets of stigma, bullying and harassment, and this dynamic can lead to adverse mental health effects. If bullying, harassment, or alienation are severe or protracted, post-traumatic stress symptoms may last for years or re-emerge in adulthood. Studies show an elevated risk of mood disorders, maladaptive risk-taking behaviors such as excess substance or alcohol use, and for some marginalized teen, an elevated risk for suicide.

How Gay-Straight Alliances in Schools Can Help

Gay-Straight Alliances, or GSAs, are organizations for straight allies and LGBTQ teens in schools. Student-led and usually school-approved, they provide guidance, support, and advocacy for marginalized populations. They sometimes appear in schools where bullying or hate speech becomes a problem. Other times students call for them themselves. Fortunately, many resources exist to provide students seeking to start a GSA in their own community the tools they need to make it happen.

Recent research shows GSAs provide unexpected benefits to school communities. For example, one recent study looked at mental health concerns for LGBTQ teens, comparing those students in school districts with anti-homophobic bullying initiatives with those in schools with Gay-Straight Alliances, as well as with those who attended schools with neither in place. The research, published in the International Journal of Child, Youth and Family Studies, turned up some surprising findings.

Researchers expected to find better mental health outcomes for the LGBTQ teens in the population they studied – and they did. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens in the study had lower rates of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. They also reported less discrimination, especially when the anti-homophobic initiatives were in place for three years or more. They also experienced less bullying and harassment compared to the group in school districts with no anti-homophobic policies in place.

Everyone Benefits

The straight students also fared better by all these measures. This finding backed up earlier research showing that GSAs also have a positive impact on problematic alcohol use by both straight and LGBTQ students. That study found that binge drinking, drug use, and other risky behaviors declined in both populations. This finding resonates, given that data also shows the more severe impact of alcohol on the developing brain. Excess alcohol use during the teen years can have a negative effect on memory, learning, and other crucial brain functions.

Substance Use, Mental Health, and GSAs

These findings underscore what more and more research shows about substance use and mental health. The two are deeply intertwined. Over and over, mental health correlates to alcohol and substance use disorder. Therapeutic intervention and support can make a real and lasting difference for people with mental health challenges, mood disorders, substance use disorder, and alcohol abuse disorder.

How do GSAs fit in this complex picture?

These organizations make schools safer for LGBTQ youth when they face harassment and bullying. They benefit straight allies as well, who may also face harassment. By encouraging students to actively participate in making school a safer and more supportive environment for their marginalized peers – and giving them an active role in doing so – GSAs create safe places where young people feel empowered to be themselves and to help and support others.

These studies paint an encouraging picture of the teen years. Humans are deeply social animals by nature, and helping those who need help has immense psychological benefits. Conversely, alienation and loneliness place tremendous pressure on mental stability at any age.