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From Tragedy to Action: Prioritizing Support for LGBTQ+ Students

From Tragedy to Action: Prioritizing Support for LGBTQ+ Students

By Vignetta Charles, Chief Executive Officer, ETR, Madhuri Jha, VP of Science, Equity, & Integration, ETR | March 29, 2024

The tragic death of Nex Benedict, a non-binary/two-spirit student in Oklahoma, has brought to light the urgent need for comprehensive support and inclusivity in our educational institutions. As two public health experts, we are deeply committed to the battle to improve young people’s and communities’ health and well-being by championing science.

As the CEO of ETR, I am deeply committed to supporting young people and preventing trauma-focused harm. At ETR, we believe in evidence-based policies and practices that promote inclusivity and support the well-being of all students.

Research has shown that LGBTQ+-supportive school policies and practices, including inclusive sexual health programs, not only benefit LGBTQ+ students but also have positive effects on an array of health outcomes of heterosexual students. Simply put, everyone benefits when schools embrace diversity and create inclusive environments.

But as a parent, I am personally devastated by Nex's death and the countless other students who have experienced bullying and discrimination. As previously noted, a recent study of 75,000 students suggests that LGBTQ+-supportive school policies and practices are significantly associated with improved health outcomes for heterosexual students as well as LGBTQ+ students.

The mental health needs of LGBTQ+ youth experiencing adversity are paramount. As the VP of Science, Equity, and Integration at ETR and as a trauma-focused mental health clinician, I have seen firsthand the consequences of neglecting the mental health needs of young people, especially those who face discrimination and adversity due to their LGBTQ+ identities.

In present day, we know that a child will make many verbal and non-verbal efforts to call out for help when contemplating suicide. It's crucial to note that the majority of referrals for mental health treatment I receive come from school-based providers.

In my clinical practice, I have witnessed the resilience of thousands of individuals, but Nex's story reminds us of the systemic failures that can lead to unspeakable harm.  In recent years, we have seen an increase in lawmakers passing legislation to restrict LGBTQ+ young people’s rights and access to everything from using the restroom to playing sports with their friends. This undoubtedly has impacted their ability to manage their mental health and well-being. No child should ever feel unsafe or marginalized in their school community.

We want all children to benefit from learning settings that are safe and supportive. At ETR, we believe all students have the right to be educated in a healthy, safe environment. When educated in supportive spaces, young people can realize their full potential as students and citizens. We support the design, implementation, and evaluation of school-based education and services and support students, educators, and other adults working with young people in schools. We recognize that the science of inclusivity in schools supports the health outcomes of all students, including LGBTQ+ students.

Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ students report more safety concerns, peer victimization, and harassment at school than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Schools can work to improve these outcomes by supporting inclusivity for LGBTQ+ students.

This can include creating safe spaces, supporting LGBTQ+ supportive school clubs, and ensuring students, parents, and educators understand harassment and discrimination policies. The data on mental health outcomes and suicide risk for LGBTQ+ youth paint a disturbing picture of marginalized youth.

There are resources for health and educational systems, whether provided by ETR or other health and educational organizations, that can support school communities to reaffirm their commitment to LGBTQ+ students and work to prevent future tragedies. When we change a system to embrace diversity and treat all with dignity and respect, we can help everyone.

However, creating safe and supportive schools requires more than just policies; it requires a commitment from all interested parties, educators, parents, policymakers, and community members—to actively work toward inclusivity and acceptance. We must listen to the voices of young people and ensure that their needs are at the forefront of our efforts.

As professionals, we are saddened by the death of Nex Benedict and the many other students, especially Indigenous, Black, and other students of color, who experience bullying and discrimination in schools.

We owe it to all of our children to do better—to create learning environments where diversity is celebrated, dignity is respected, and every student can thrive. Together, we can prevent future tragedies and build a brighter future for all young people.

Vignetta Charles, PhD, (she/her/hers) is Chief Executive Officer of ETR. 

Madhuri Jha, LCSW, MPH (she/her/hers) is the Vice President of Science, Equity, and Integration at ETR.

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