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Study: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth at schools with gay-straight alliances have better mental health

A new study shows that LGBT youth who go to schools with gay-straight alliances have better mental health, are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend college.

Here's the complete news release from Family Acceptance Project:

SAN FRANCISCO - NOVEMBER 15, 2011 - New research has found that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth who attend middle or high schools with Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) have better mental health as young adults, are less likely to drop out of high school, and more likely to attend college. Published in the current issue of Applied Developmental Science, this is the first study to show that GSA participation is related to long-term benefits. The study, High School Gay–Straight Alliances (GSAs) and Young Adult Well-Being, is based on data from the Family Acceptance Project’s survey of LGBT young adults, which examined the school-related experiences of 245 LGBT young adults, ages 21 to 25.

Prior research has shown that LGBT youth are at risk for school victimization based on their sexual orientation and gender expression; that LGB youth and young adults report higher levels of depression and other mental health problems than heterosexual peers in a range of studies; and that LGBT school bullying is related to compromised academic achievement. However, until now, there have been few indicators to show whether positive school-based supports can help prevent these negative outcomes in young adulthood. In this new study, the positive impact of GSAs was particularly strong when students viewed their Gay-Straight Alliances as effective in promoting a safer school environment.

The study also shows that the benefits of Gay-Straight Alliances diminish as levels of LGBT school victimization increase; that is, the protective nature of GSAs is not enough to overcome the negative impact of LGBT victimization on young adult mental health. Thus, the authors document that Gay-Straight Alliances cannot be proposed as the sole solution for creating safer school climates for LGBT youth. Instead, schools need to implement other efforts to reduce anti-LGBT bias in schools in combination with the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances, such as enumerated anti-harassment and nondiscrimination policies, teacher training on how to intervene in school harassment related to sexual orientation and gender expression, and an LGBT-inclusive curriculum.

These findings are of particular importance in light of recent tragic incidents of school violence – such as the murder of Larry King in 2008 and the multiple suicides of young men perceived to be gay in 2010 and 2011 who experienced high levels of LGBT school victimization. Further, several schools and districts continue to attempt to ban the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances (e.g., school board of Nassau County in 2009; Okeechobee High School in 2008 [both in Florida]; Flour Buff High School in Corpus Christi, TX, in 2011), even though GSAs are protected by the 1984 Federal Equal Access Act. In addition, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has a policy that requires staff to “remain neutral in matters related to sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussion” that belies the purpose of GSAs which is to provide a supportive school-related environment where students can learn about and openly discuss and educate the school community on LGBT issues.

Said co-author Russell Toomey: “Given the recent attention to tragic deaths by suicide related to anti-LGBT school bullying over the past year, our research documents that having Gay-Straight Alliances in schools is an important way to boost mental health and academic achievement for LGBT young people. However, Gay-Straight Alliances should not be perceived as the only vehicle for creating safer school climates for students – clearly, our findings document that other LGBT-positive supports need to be implemented in schools for LGBT students to thrive.”

Noted co-author Stephen T. Russell: “This study adds to the mounting evidence that youth-led clubs are important for healthy development – especially for youth at risk. For LGBT youth, high school gay-straight alliances make a significant positive difference.”

Dr. Caitlin Ryan, study co-author and Director of the Family Acceptance Project at SF State University added, “This new study on the benefits of GSAs to health and education adds to our growing understanding of the importance of social environments and the need to provide institutional support for LGBT youth to promote well-being in adulthood.”

Citation: Toomey, R. B., Ryan, C., Diaz, R. M., & Russell, S. T. (2011). High school gay-straight alliances (GSAs) and young adult well-being: An examination of GSA presence, participation, and perceived effectiveness. Applied Developmental Science, 15(4),1-11.

About the Family Acceptance Project
The Family Acceptance Project is a research, intervention, education and policy initiative that is designed to: 1) improve the health, mental health, and well-being of LGBT children and adolescents; 2) strengthen and help ethnically and religiously diverse families to support their LGBT children; 3) help LGBT youth to stay in their homes to prevent homelessness and the need for custodial care in the foster care and juvenile justice systems; 4) inform public policy and family policy; and 5) develop a new evidence-based, family model of wellness, prevention, and care to promote well-being and decrease risk for LGBT youth. For more information, please visit familyproject.sfsu.edu

Adds Equality Florida:

"The Florida GSA Network has been recognized as the fastest growing  GSA network in the country.  Since our founding almost 15 year's ago, Equality Florida has work hard to ensure anti-bullying protections exist all across the state. Today, nearly 60% of Florida students are specifically protected from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This research proves something we've anecdotally known to be true for a very long time; student organized Gay-Straight Alliances are essential and they provide a lifeline for young people in school." - Nadine Smith, executive director for Equality Florida. 

Equality Florida's GSA Network provides training and support to more than 110 GSAs across Florida. For more on Florida's GSA Network, visit http://eqfl.org/Safe_Schools.

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