Beyond Acceptance Transforming LGBTQIA+ Student Mental Health

Photo courtesy of Marcel Strauß

As college campuses strive to be havens of inclusivity and growth, support systems for LGBTQIA+ mental health are imperative for fostering a truly affirming and thriving educational environment.

This work is critical, as countless studies highlight the startling realities faced by LGBTQIA+ youth. For example, among a sample of more than 28,000 LGBTQIA+ young people, over one in three believe their chances of living over the age of 35 are low, according to the 2024 study “Perceived Life Expectancy and Life Purpose in LGBTQ+ Young People” by The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and LGBTQIA+ mental health organization.

This belief correlates with increased mental health concerns; those who predicted a low chance of living a long life reported higher rates of recent anxiety, depression, past-year self-harm, suicide consideration, and suicide attempts.

As the data makes clear the urgent need for action, Genny Beemyn, PhD, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, says students are finding their voice. Beemyn has published extensively on the experiences and needs of transgender college students.

“There are more students recognizing that they need help and seeking help than [ever] before,” says Beemyn. “I think [it’s] a positive change that people who are experiencing harassment and discrimination aren’t just sitting on it and letting that impact them in negative ways, but are [finding help].”

Experts say institutional leaders and the campus community can implement a number of actions that prioritize the psychological well-being of LGBTQIA+ students. Some include integrating DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts with mental health support; providing specialized mental health services; bolstering organizations, programs, and centers; and expanding faculty and staff resources.

Strategies for Success Further research is facilitating dialogue across higher education and advancing strategies in campus communities. For example, it’s imperative that institutions understand the connection between DEI and mental health because
of the strong relationship between “discrimination and increased general distress, social isolation, and suicidal thoughts,” according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health Annual Report, which accounts for more than 185,000 college students who sought mental health treatment at 195 campus counseling centers during the 2022-2023 academic year.

While it’s no secret that a sense of belonging contributes to an individual’s overall well-being and chance of success, continued stigma around mental health coupled with attacks on diversity programming and LGBTQIA+ rights and policies contribute to overlooking this critical component.

“We can’t expect students to be able to fully be present and learn the course content if we’re not allowing them to show up in spaces as their authentic selves,” says Jon Humiston, EdD, director of noncredit and alternate enrollment programs for innovation and online at Central Michigan University. “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs will say if your basic needs aren’t met, your ability to grasp and focus on external content like learning course material is going to be much more challenging.”

Spanning two decades, Humiston’s career and research has focused primarily on the campus climate for LGBTQIA+ students, especially transgender and nonbinary individuals.

In the current climate, it is increasingly important that an abundance of resources are made available to offer much-needed support for LGBTQIA+ students, such as drop-in counseling hours, transportation services for on- or off-campus health care, and telehealth and virtual offerings. It’s also vital that institutions advance LGBTQIA+-inclusive environments, centers, housing options, organizations, programming, and systems for accurately identifying student names, pronouns, and genders.

“Trans and nonbinary students need places where they can have support, where they can be themselves and live their lives as themselves,” says Beemyn. “Too often that doesn’t translate in the campus environment.”

Overall, because the quality of psychological health is so closely linked with the depth of social connection, every aspect of a campus should nurture a sense of community.

Impact of Faculty and Staff Whether a student, faculty, staff, administration, or a community member, one shouldn’t overlook the potential impact they may have on student mental health.

“Oftentimes, when we think of mental health, we think of counseling centers,” says Beemyn. “Certainly, they have an important responsibility for student mental health, but they can’t do it all. … We all have a role to play [and] we all can make a difference.”

LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized populations report lower rates of perceiving that their professors care about them. However, LGBTQIA+ students who report feeling cared for by their teachers to a high degree are 30% less likely to attempt suicide, as indicated in The Trevor Project study “The Relationship Between Caring Teachers and the Mental Health of LGBTQ Students.”

In a vicious cycle, untrained faculty and staff attempting to support students in crisis are less likely to have the appropriate resources for them and more likely to then need support themselves. Exacerbating these circumstances are the restrictions on mandatory training for faculty and staff that have followed some states’ anti-DEI legislation. In some places, leaders and administrators may be penalized for even encouraging such training.

Institutions can prioritize education for students and educators alike by partnering with community organizations, distributing educational literature, or offering voluntary educational hours through LGBTQIA+ centers. Not only does guidance need to be offered to faculty and staff, but educators must also take the initiative to educate themselves, says Beemyn.

Humiston and their research partner Aaric Guerriero have seen firsthand the impact that DEI objectives and LGBTQIA+ support structures can make in student success. “Students are trying to navigate these academic requirements and all these other things that are placed upon them, but are also worrying about … ‘I can’t even get out of bed because my depression is so bad. I’m navigating this situation and have no one to process with.’ [This is coupled with] faculty and staff who are not trained,” says Guerriero. Overall, students need to know that there are individuals available, on campus and beyond, who are eager to offer assistance, says Beemyn. “There’s so much support in the world,” says Beemyn. “Yes, there’s a lot of haters — but there’s also a lot of people who are there for you or who would be there for you. You just need to find those people.”