Student Minds, the UK’s student mental health charity, states that “the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals differs significantly from their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts - they’re more likely to have poorer mental health outcomes.” This statement aligns with the global context of LGBTQ+ issues, despite recent legal and cultural progress in many countries.
Homosexuality is still illegal in over 70 countries and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community still occur, even in some of the most liberal societies.
Selecting a university
When LGBTQ+ students are choosing a university, there will be certain amenities and social aspects that they want to be present. Social aspects, such as access to dedicated organizations and student groups, and openly LGBTQ+ students and staff, reassure prospective students that they will fit in, and have the opportunity to speak about personal issues with those who understand their challenges from first-hand experience. The inclusion of LGBTQ+ options for modules, majors, and minors, are also an indication to students that a university values the contributions and struggles of the LGBTQ+ community, making students feel better understood.
In a more general sense, seeing signs of LGBTQ+ pride around campus, or in marketing materials will help convey a liberal attitude where all students are welcome. Highlighting amenities that are designed with consideration for the community, such as gender-neutral bathrooms and inclusive housing, also help to give a good impression.
The above may sound like obvious ways to make the community feel more comfortable on campus, but the Campus Pride index highlights how little is still being done in some cases. Only 7% of universities in the US have a full-time support member for the LGBTQ+ community, and 45% don’t have any dedicated LGBTQ+ clubs or groups.
LGBTQ+ students and mental health
A Student Minds’ 2018 LGBTQ+ report) asked students from the LGBTQ+ community to answer questions on their mental health, support, attitudes, and community. The results gave an overview of life and the services available to LGBTQ+ students at UK universities. 93% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘young LGBTQ+ people have higher rates of poor mental health, self-harm and suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts.’
The survey also asked people to what extent a peer support program focused around mental health for students identifying as LGBTQ+ could be useful or beneficial for students. The majority (89%) of respondents identified that they thought peer support could be beneficial. A further 77% of student and recent graduate respondents identified that they would have engaged with such a program.
Further questions revealed that the main place LGBTQ+ students would go for support:
- Friends: 367 (93%)
- Professionals: 297 (75%)
- Parents: 290 (73%)
- GP: 249 (63%)
- Academic Tutor: 194 (49%)
- Family (not parents): 156 (40%)
- Telephone helplines: 119 (30%)
From this response, it seems that support from friends should include direction to professional services. How this is achieved is through better awareness of what’s on offer, who can access it, and that there is no stigma in doing so. If all students were aware of the support on offer to LGBTQ+ students, then perhaps they would be more likely to direct their peers to use them.
A recommendation from the report also suggests that universities should develop peer support programs focused on LGBTQ+ students. Not only would this ensure that mental health support correctly helps a community that is at higher risk, but it exposes students to others that are going through similar situations to create a larger network of other LGBTQ+ students to connect with.
In April 2020 Studee ran a webinar focused on LGBTQ+ students and the ways in which universities can better support them.
LGBTQ+ international students
When dealing with international students, some of the LGBTQ+ community have a unique challenge: studying somewhere with liberal attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community, then returning home to a homophobic community or society at the end of their studies.
The Studee advice center supports students applying to universities abroad and has thousands of conversations with students every day, helping them from application to enrollment at their chosen institution. One of the advisors has said the following about their experience talking with LGBTQ+ international students: “students can come from very religious backgrounds where homosexuality is mostly unacceptable, Asia Africa and Saudi Arabia. When they do disclose their sexual orientation to us, they often mention how excited they are to be studying in a welcoming and accepting country, but the anxiety of returning home is something that affects their mental health a lot.”
Ideally, universities would have a process in place to prepare students for this transition of returning home. This may involve building links with charities, organizations or universities in other countries, so that a support system is in place for a returning student. This support network can help with and signpost relevant mental health services, as well as providing an understanding community to be part of.
Steps to support your LGBTQ+ students
Consider the following areas to ensure your university is doing what it can to support LGBTQ+ students across campus:
Mental health first aiders
Those who are specially trained in mental health first aid can act as approachable and knowledgeable contacts for students to talk to about any issues they’re facing. Any mental health conditions can be assessed and the student can be suggested the correct support services to help them further.
It’s also important to have LGBTQ+ students trained in this way. Leaders of student organizations and groups, as well as program representatives, can act as great touchpoints that students trust and relate to.
Terminology for LGBTQ+ people is developing all the time and at a fast pace. Different people have different preferences for what is deemed appropriate and offensive from outside of the community, so it’s important that people are respectful and willing to learn from individuals they are dealing with.
Ask how students identify and the gender/pronouns/name they want to be associated with them, then ensure that other members of staff who have contact with that student are informed of their preferences.
Specialist support services
Get feedback from your current LGBTQ+ students as to the support they believe is lacking and how other services can be improved.
Consider inviting all new students to LGBTQ+ groups, and specific mental health support groups. Include and ask for current students to volunteer in these too, so from day one LGBTQ+ students can meet others from the community on campus.
Join an association such as Campus Pride, and extend this further by engaging with the wider LGBTQ+ community in your university’s campus town or city. Students should see signs of pride across campus, such as promoted inclusive events and groups.
At student fairs, ensure messaging is LGBTQ+ inclusive, as well as promoting mental health services.