An alarming picture of attitudes confronting young LGBT people

The earlier we tackle the kind of homophobic attitudes that damage young lives the better

 

Last May the Irish people voted decisively in favour of extending equal civil rights to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The courage and dignity of individuals who opted to share their past experiences of fear, shame and prejudice played a central role in winning over the hearts and minds of voters.

That is why a report published this week into life today for Ireland’s LGBT community makes for troubling reading. The largest survey of its kind shows many younger people are experiencing elevated levels of suicidal behaviour and self-harm, as well as worrying levels of severe and extremely severe stress, anxiety and depression.

Compared to the wider teen population, gay teens are two times more likely to have self-harmed, three times more likely to have attempted suicide and four times more likely to have experienced anxiety or depression.

It is important to recognise positive findings as well. A majority of over-25s, for example, report good self-esteem and are proud of their identity. Ireland’s universities and workplaces are regarded as safe and welcoming places for members of the LGBT community. We are, it appears, making significant inroads into changing homophobic attitudes facing older people.

However, school continues to be a toxic environment place for many young LGBT people. Only one-in-five feel they belong completely in their school. Less than half feel they have received positive affirmation of their identity. These young people are experiencing elevated levels of suicidal behaviour and self-harm, as well as worrying levels of severe and extremely severe stress, anxiety and depression.

These findings are not acceptable. In a society which has committed itself to equal rights for all LGBT citizens, it is profoundly disturbing that so many vulnerable young people are going to school filled with fear and afraid of being targeted simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Protecting the mental well-being of our children at school must be an urgent priority for everyone running our education system. These environments need to be affirming places where young LGBT people can experience acceptance and open attitudes.

Anti-bullying policies and inclusive strategies cannot be left to gather dust on shelves. They must be at the very heart of our classrooms. Schools and teachers need to be given all the support they require to help change hearts, attitudes and beliefs. Boards of management need to ensure these issues are taken seriously. Parents must demand that schools are safe places for their children.

The earlier we tackle the kind of homophobic attitudes that are damaging young lives the better. When citizens voted in last May’s referendum, it was a resounding victory of fairness over injustice, and solidarity over isolation. It will be a hollow result if harmful practices hold us back from achieving true equality. Too many people in the past were forced to lead lives of fear and anxiety. We cannot allow a new generation to suffer in the same way.

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