Concerns rise over suicide rates of Black transgender and nonbinary youth
(The Hill) — LGBTQ activists and leaders are sounding alarm bells over a recent report on rising suicide rates among Black nonbinary and transgender youth, which many attribute to the spread of laws that target transgender identities.
A quarter of Black transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide last year, according to a report last month from the Trevor Project, a national LGBTQ youth suicide prevention organization; that figure is double the rate of their Black LGBTQ cisgender peers.
The report found that Black transgender and nonbinary youth are also more likely to report experiencing higher rates of victimization, including discrimination, threats of violence, physical attacks and attempts from others to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“There is this idea out there that LGBTQ young people, and trans and nonbinary people in particular, are somehow inherently more mentally ill than their peers, and that’s just not true,” Jonah DeChants, a senior research scientist at The Trevor Project, told The Hill.
DeChants said poor mental health among Black transgender and nonbinary people of all ages is rooted in minority stress. “The multiplication of multiple marginalized identities increases opportunities to have negative experiences due to those identities,” he said.
Overall, suicide rates among children and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 account for 14 percent of all suicides in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also the second leading cause of death among children and teens.
Suicidality in young people has been generally trending downward over the past 30 years, research shows, but the rate of suicide attempts among young Black people has increased, rising 37 percent between 2018 and 2021.
“More work needs to be done to make sure that mental health services are culturally safe for young people of color,” DeChants said, attributing the rise in suicide attempts among Black youth, in part, to too few clinicians and mental health researchers who share their clients’ diverse backgrounds.
“There’s different levels of skills and affirmations that mental health clinicians need to have in order to provide therapy that is affirming of someone’s trans or nonbinary identity and is also competent to their cultural background and their cultural context,” he said. “That’s something we need across the board.”
“Something is working with regard to messaging and support and services for everybody else, but it’s not working for Black kids,” said David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a leading Black LGBTQ civil rights organization.
A recent tidal wave of legislation targeting both Black and LGBTQ people is likely also to blame, he said.
In just the first two months of the year, legislators in more than two dozen states have introduced more than 380 bills that target LGBTQ identities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Dozens seek to restrict access to gender-affirming health care for transgender youth and threaten to bar young transgender students from using school restrooms or locker rooms or playing on sports teams that match their gender identity.
“The end result of people proliferating, championing and codifying policies and practices that suggest that queer people should not enjoy public life … is genocide,” Johns argued.
Most anti-LGBTQ legislation fails to become law, but the introduction of measures seeking to restrict the rights of LGBTQ people can still severely impact the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ young people, data suggests.
In a January poll, 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said their mental health has been negatively affected by debates around state bills that target their identities, with 45 percent experiencing cyberbullying and nearly 1 in 3 reporting they did not feel safe enough to see a health care provider when they were sick or injured.
“The mental health issues that folks are facing quite often are the result of the bigotry and hatred that folks who are not trans and nonbinary are inflicting upon us,” Tori Cooper, the director of community engagement of the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) Transgender Justice Initiative, told The Hill this week.
“We’re not having mental health crises because of who we are. It’s because of how we’re being treated by people who either don’t understand or simply refuse to understand,” she said.
States this year are also aggressively pursuing legislation to cut diversity, equity and inclusion policies from workplaces and restrict how teachers can address systemic inequality and racism in the classroom.
In January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) administration rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course, citing a lack of educational value and criticizing a section of the course focused on the experience of Black queer Americans.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), whose education department last year proposed model transgender policies accused of being transphobic, has also requested a review of the course.
“For many of us, and I dare say that for most of us, the racial aspect or the racism aspect of intersectionality is one that creates an even larger burden for us,” said Cooper, who is Black and transgender. “I think there are a lot of folks who deal with those issues from external forces and that really creates very uncomfortable mental health situations.”
“When you unpack all of the things that a young Black trans person in the United States has to contend with, the numbers aren’t a surprise,” said TransLash Media Founder Imara Jones, in reference to last month’s Trevor Project report.
“We have to understand that what we’re seeing in the numbers — when it impacts young Black trans people — is that it’s the compounded nature of the various things that people have to deal with,” she said. “We’re talking about intersectional issues and identities.”
Researchers like DeChants say paving the way for more practitioners and mental health researchers of all backgrounds to enter the field is an important first step toward lowering suicidality among Black transgender and nonbinary youth.
The support of friends and loved ones is also critical, he said. In last month’s Trevor Project report, Black transgender and nonbinary young people with high social support from their families were 47 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the last year.
“Let people know that you love and care about them, that you accept them and that you’re going to stand up for them,” Jones told The Hill. “It is to match deed and word when we say protect trans youth.”