Interview with Marisa Padgett, LCSW, conducted by Alex Levitt
“These kids are trying to live a life that is authentic to what is going on inside of them, and when loved ones reject them, that is detrimental to the kid’s mental health and self-esteem.”
In what ways do you see changes when it comes to acceptance of LGBTQ+ youth in society?
Marisa Padgett: It’s interesting because I recently talked to a 12-year-old boy here who identified as gay. I was speaking with the grandmother, and she was worried at how society at large will accept him. While she accepts him, she has her fears. We were talking about how acceptance has changed a lot in the last 10 to 20 years. I remember that when I was in high school, most people were not out. It was getting more accepted, but not how it is now.
I don’t worry as much about the kids with their peers, but more when they are out in the community. I think it has gotten better, but there is still a long way to go. In some ways, now it is more divisive than ever. I think that people are very hard-lined where they stand, either one way or another. While the LGBTQ+ community is growing, and we have things in place for pride and a lot of support for the kids in this community, there are people out there who are rejecting and intolerant, and they skew toward hate just for hate’s sake.
Middle school kids can also be very vocal and put down kids for any reason because that’s kind of where they are in life, developmentally. Also, generational issues surface a lot – for example, “My mom gets me, but she says don’t tell my grandparents that I’m transgender.” There is still a lag generationally. There can also be a shift in a relationship between a kid and loved ones after coming out. When the reality of it hits the parents, some have a hard time reconciling this new information about their kid’s identity.
How can we build an atmosphere of inclusion, regardless of our personal or religious views?
MP: We tell families that when a child comes out, this is who they are; they are not different people. What you think about a person before you found out they are gay, transgender or non-binary is still true because they are still that same person. There are many layers to people. Recognizing this is important for the families and for the society at large in becoming more tolerant. Look at people as people who are living their lives and their identity, and recognize it is not something they are choosing. We try to help parents understand they are not choosing this because in truth, it is a hard path. Having to deal with the prejudice, intolerance and the outright hate out there is immensely difficult.
Asking yourself what if it was your child, sister, brother or parent is a helpful exercise. If it was someone that you love deeply, would that be any different for you? Also, if an LGBTQ+ youth is not accepted by their peers, maybe they need to hang out with different people. A club like GSA [Gay-Straight Alliance] has done wonders for giving young people a space of acceptance. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, absolutely, but that should not affect how other people should be treated in society.
What are the mental health challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth, and how can loved ones can be supportive?
MP: We are seeing a lot of young people dealing with depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and self-harm. I think it is a result of the fear of not being accepted and the way that the people closest to them will respond. It’s a very different thing if they are not openly LGBTQ+, but they almost know that their parents will not accept them. They’ve heard the way their parents talk about it, or for instance say their cousin came out and they heard their parents’ talk negatively about it. These kids are aware and have an idea already of how their parents are going to react. They might be out to their friends, but having to hold that in and not being comfortable with who they are in front of their parents causes a lot of tension.
Coming out must be handled very sensitively. Parents need to figure out how to respond to their teen, especially if they are already depressed or having suicidal thoughts. An issue with those who identify as transgender and non-binary is they have come out and the parents won’t accept them or use their pronouns. I tell the kids that if their parents are trying that’s good, but when parents refuse, that’s where the friction happens, and the kids struggle with mental health issues. These young people are trying to live a life that is authentic to what is going on inside of them, and when loved ones reject them, that is detrimental to the kid’s mental health and self-esteem. It’s like saying, “It’s not okay to be who you are”. Kids can attempt to take their lives over this.
What services does North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center provide LGBTQ+ youth to help them?
MP: There are basic services we provide like individual and family therapy. We build an LGBTQ+ group every fall once we have enough clients. Every therapist here is understanding and aware of LGBTQ+ issues. As a supervisor, I educate my team and make sure they are all very aware and sensitive and supportive. We do the family work and help the parents with the issues that they themselves are struggling to accept and understand for the child.
During the intake process, we ask the child in private if they want to address their sexual orientation or identity in treatment. In addition, we ask if their parents know and if they want them to know. You don’t want to assume anything. Making them comfortable to open up is vital to treatment.
Bio: Marisa Padgett, LCSW, is Clinical Supervisor of Emergency, Triage & Suicide Prevention Services at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-626-1971, ext. 367.
Bio: Alex Levitt is a senior at Farmingdale State College, where he is majoring in Professional Communications. He is an intern for North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, Long Island’s preeminent children’s mental health organization. To reach the Guidance Center, call 516-626-1971.
Research on LGBTQ+ Youth
- LGBTQ+ identified individuals have a 2 to 6 times higher lifetime risk of suicide and/or depression than the general population.
- The concept of “dual alienation” is the idea that individuals who belong to more than one marginalized group are doubly marginalized. Individuals with mental health issues who identify as LGBTQ belong to at least two traditionally marginalized groups.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24— and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning LGBTQ+ youth are at significantly increased risk.
- The Trevor Project estimates that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth (13-24) seriously consider suicide each year in the U.S. — and at least one attempts suicide every 45 seconds.
- The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health found that 45% of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.
- The data show that 43% of transgender youth have been bullied on school property. 29% of transgender youth, 21% of gay and lesbian youth and 22% of bisexual youth have attempted suicide
- 16% of gay and lesbian youth and 11% of bisexual youth have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property, compared to 7% of straight youth.