This article was published on March 2nd, 2023
Adolescence is often confusing and isolating, especially for LGBTQ+ students, or students beginning to discover their gender identities. A recent study from the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychology found that LGBQ+ youth reported higher depressive symptoms than heterosexual students at the start of the school year. However, that same study said that the presence of queer-affirming student organizations such as the Gay-Straight Alliance had a positive impact on both the mental health of queer students and the culture of schools as a whole.
“Discrimination is a major contributor to depression among LGBTQ+ youth. GSAs provide an affirming space in schools for LGBTQ+ youth to access support and work collectively against discrimination that they face,” says lead author, Dr. Paul Poteat, Professor of Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology at Boston College.
GLSEN is an educational and activist network founded by a group of teachers in 1990 to facilitate affirming learning environments for LGBTQ+ students. GLSEN provides resources for educators and students who want to start a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at their school, offering tips on everything from finding a faculty advisor to finding new members for GSA’s. GLSEN also organizes educational efforts that extend beyond the confines of the clubs itself, and work to involve the entire student body, such as National Day of Silence and No Name-Calling Week.
Poteat continued, “Our results suggest that GSA-led advocacy efforts to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ students’ experiences and to address discrimination have the potential to reduce disparities in depression between LGBQ students and heterosexual students in the general school population.”
A separate study conducted by GLSEN found that 53% of secondary school educators believe that having a GSA helps create a safer learning environment for students. GSA’s are now in 44% of middle and high schools throughout the United States.
The study for the Journal of Child and Adolescent psychology surveyed 1,362 students from 23 secondary schools across Massachusetts who attended schools with GSAs but who were not members of the GSA – 89% of whom identified as heterosexual and 11% as LGBQ+. Participants reported their depressive symptoms at the beginning and the end of the school year – and separately, GSA members reported on their group’s advocacy efforts over the school year. Ultimately, 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 year.
Not only do GSA’s positively impact the emotional well-being of students, but the presence of GSA’s throughout schools also corresponds to an increased feeling of physical safety for students.
In a separate study conducted by GLSEN, researchers found that students who had access to a GSA at their school reported feeling a greater sense of not only emotional belonging but physical safety. GLSEN stated, “LGBT students who attend schools with a GSA are less likely than those at schools without a GSA to report feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation (61% vs. 68%) or because of the way in which they express their gender (38% vs. 43%).6.”
The authors of the study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychology also noted that more research would be needed to see if these benefits extend outside of Massachusetts, including broader considerations of the school’s socio-political location.
It’s important to note that GLSEN found that students of color may have less access to GSA’s at their schools than their peers. GLSEN reported, “LGBT African American/Black students are less likely to report having a GSA in their school than other LGBT students of color, particularly those in schools where the student population is predominantly African American.”
GLSEN also found that students who live in Southern or rural areas are the least likely to have access to a GSA at their school.
But these recent findings from the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychology suggest that access to these resources impacts the collective health of the student body for the better. “Our findings further underscore the value of GSAs to promote the well-being of LGBTQ+ students – suggesting these groups are a key school-based resource for addressing the mental health needs of this group,” adds co-author Dr. Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Professor from the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, at New York University.