About 44% of U.S. middle and high schools have student-run clubs that shine a light on issues that touch the lives of LGBTQ+ students.
And new research suggests that depression risk among LGBTQ+ students is considerably lower in those schools where such Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs), similar to Gay-Straight Alliances, are present and relatively active.
“Depression is one of the foremost health concerns among LGBTQ+ youth,” said lead author V. Paul Poteat, a professor in the department of counseling, developmental and educational psychology at Boston College.
“While risk of depression has tended to range from 8% to 17% in the general adolescent population, it has ranged from 18% to 23% among LGBQ+ youth,” he noted.
GSAs are school clubs that provide a welcoming space for LGBTQ+ teens and their heterosexual cisgender peers to socialize, support one another and learn about LGBTQ+ issues.
Typically meeting once a week or every-other-week for up to an hour — either during or after school — GSAs sometimes also advocate for protective and inclusive policies for LGBTQ+ youth, Poteat explained, promoting inclusion and visibility along with socializing and event-planning.
He said his team wanted to see whether advocacy work could reduce depressive symptoms by helping lower the risk for loneliness, fearfulness or hopelessness among LGBTQ+ teens.
Nearly 1,400 boys and girls in 23 Massachusetts middle and high schools (grades 6 through 12) participated in the study.
Nobody in this pool of teens was enrolled in a GSA. In all, 89% identified as straight, and 11% as LGBQT+. Roughly 7 in 10 were white.
Over two academic years — between 2016 and 2018 — researchers gathered information on each participant's age, grade, sexual orientation, self-declared gender identity, race/ethnicity, and their parents' country of origin.
Symptoms of depression were assessed at the start and end of a school year.
The researchers also focused on a second pool of 245 students, all of whom were current members of a GSA. They were asked to indicate how strenuously they had engaged in, organized or promoted advocacy activities during the school year.
Compared with their straight classmates, LGBTQ+ teens had higher levels of depression both at the start and finish of the school year, the researchers observed.
But stacking depression symptoms up against GSA activity levels showed something significant.
“We found that depression disparities between LGBQ+ students and heterosexual students were smaller at the end of the school year for students in schools whose GSAs had engaged in more advocacy over the school year,” Poteat said.
The investigators acknowledged that they did not account for the presence of school-based anti-bullying policies, or the lack thereof. Nor did they factor in what other types of non-GSA-related exposure the students may have had throughout the year.
Still, Poteat said, GSAs likely have a positive impact on LGBTQ+ youth given their focus on raising the visibility of students who experience marginalization or isolation.
“Our findings, along with those of many other researchers, show the danger of efforts that attempt to silence students' voices and suppress visibility of LGBTQ+ young people, their lives and experiences at school,” he said.
That thought was seconded by Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.
“These findings are especially important during a resurgence of efforts to restrict school support for LGBQ and transgender students that help to increase well-being,” Ryan said.
In the first six months of last year, for example, more than 111 bills aiming to limit classroom discussions about race and gender were passed or introduced in state legislatures, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is currently tracking 321 anti-LGBTQ bills in the United States.
Ryan noted that research has consistently found higher rates of depression among LGBQT+ youth compared with their heterosexual peers.
“And GSAs have been associated with positive outcomes for LGBQ students,” she said, adding that the new study "deepens our understanding of how GSAs contribute to better mental health for LGBQ students, through the empowering role of advocacy.”
The findings were published Feb. 21 in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.
There's more about LGBTQ+ youth at the Family Acceptance Project.
SOURCES: V. Paul Poteat, PhD, professor, department of counseling, developmental and educational psychology, Boston College; Caitlin Ryan, PhD, director, Family Acceptance Project, San Francisco State University; Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Feb. 21, 2023