First-of-its-kind survey in North Texas indicates family rejection, religious issues lead to higher rate of depression, thoughts of suicide
Youth First Texas recently released the results of a first-ever comprehensive survey of LGBT youth in the Dallas metropolitan area, and it suggests there may be a widespread mental health crisis among that population.
YFT officials said the study was born out of a need to determine if the nonprofit organization was meeting the needs of the youth it has pledged to serve.
Judith Dumont, director of administration at YFT, led the youth study. She said, "Any youth service provider that authentically understands their population should have a comprehensive study [of their own youth]."
She said there are national studies available, but this one is the only one available "in Dallas, in Texas and even the Southwest."
The raw data for the study was collected from 100 LGBT and questioning youth and allies, ages 14 to 22, from October through December 2008. The subsequent statistical processing was performed by Jason Mintor, a doctoral candidate at Southern Methodist University.
In terms of sexuality, the survey showed that 46 percent of YFT youth identify as gay, 31 percent as bisexual, 13 percent as lesbian, 9 percent as straight and 4 percent as questioning.
Perhaps the most revealing statistic released was that 55 percent of YFT youth had attempted suicide in their lifetime, and more than 50 percent have considered it in the last year. One out of three had made plans to kill themselves in the last year as well.
Dumont, who takes these numbers seriously, also said to keep in mind that there may be "discrepancies between what youth report they are doing and what their actual behavior is."
Still, philanthropist Mitchell Gold believes LGBT youth are indeed undergoing a "silent epidemic" of depression, a major factor in suicide. His recent book "Crisis" purports to expose "a tragic mental health crisis" affecting "hundreds of thousands of gay teenagers today."
LGBT youth do report living in a state of continuous fear. And that, Dumont said, can lead to debilitating depression.
About 30 percent of YFT youth report depression and 22 percent report feelings of anxiety, which can originate at school, church or at home. About one quarter of YFT youth report being scared to go to school because of their sexual orientation, and about one fifth report having been assaulted at school for the same reason.
Homophobic slurs are being heard on a daily basis by 45 percent of the youth.
Many youth have shifted their religious ties away from the churches in which they were raised, according to survey results.
Dumont said, "Many youth were forced to choose between their identities and their church."
The study shows, for example, that 70 percent of YFT youth were raised as Christians, but only 40 percent of today’s YFT youth identify as such.
Dumont, though, said she is excited that many youth are beginning to reclaim their religious identities by working with accepting churches such as the Cathedral of Hope and the Church of Transfiguration.
The study shows also that some youth have turned away from religion completely, with the number of those claiming to be atheists increasing from 10 to 20 percent as youth find new beliefs. About 25 percent of YFT youth shifted to Wicca and other less traditional belief systems (not Christian, Buddhist or atheist).
The study reveals that a high percentage of LGBT youth are seeing mental health professionals. About 65 percent of YFT youth have previously been to see a psychotherapist, with 35 percent seeing one within the last year.
While Dumont said she recognizes that there are more LGBT youth in therapy than there are non-LGBT youth in therapy, she attributes this more to parents who cannot accept that their children are gay than to the idea that the young people themselves need therapy.
"Many of our youth swap stories about how when they came out to their parents, that they sent them to therapy," she said.
Abuse within the family home was also not uncommon among those surveyed, with 46 percent reporting some type of physical, verbal, sexual or emotional abuse. The study reports 26 percent of youth had been "kicked out of their homes" and 21 percent had run away.
Many of the young people who responded to the survey said they have experienced various forms of rape, including forced sexual intercourse (23 percent) and forced oral sex (12 percent). About 12 percent said they have previously depended on sex for survival, often exchanging sex for food or shelter, and about 18 percent said they had exchanged sexual favors for drugs and/or money.
Habitual use of drugs and alcohol were another area covered in the survey, and about 45 percent of respondents reported previous drug usage while 75 percent reported previous alcohol usage. About 10 percent said they use drugs and alcohol on either a daily or near daily level.
Marijuana was the most common drug used, with 30 percent of the youth reporting prior usage. Cigarette usage was also common, with one-third of respondents reporting regular usage.
Previous self-mutilation was reported by 39 percent of YFT youth.
One surprising result, said Dumont, was the age that Generation Y youth are coming out to at least one parent. It is about three to four years sooner than when Gen X youth came out to their parents.
Dumont said the average age for Gen Y youth coming out is only 15.3 years of age, compared to anywhere from 18 to 20 years for Gen X youth.
Furthermore, 85 percent of the youth at YFT have at least one parent that knows their sexual orientation.
Dumont said that further studies at YFT are already planned with hopes of reaching 200 youth.
According to Bob Miskinis, one of the YFT founders, 1,100 youth were served at YFT in 2008, so there is an opportunity to collect data from a much larger sample size. Dumont said as they processed the 2008 data, they recognized there are additional questions they would like answers to.
Dumont said she is proud of how YFT is able to help through recreational programs, educational programs, social services and youth leadership development. The study found that respondents rated YFT’s services to be 91 percent effective and that youth comfort levels with their own sexual orientation/gender identity to have improved from 69 percent to 87 percent.
Of the events that YFT participates in, Dumont said the youth are especially fond of the Pride Parade. She said they are "beaming with pride" while walking publicly hand-in-hand down Cedar Springs.
"When you have 30,000 people cheering for you, that is an intense validation," she said.
Still, there is more to be done, Dumont said, especially in the area of youth outreach, which has largely been word of mouth thus far.
"It isn’t the youth who we are reaching that I worry about so much, but rather the ones we aren’t," she said.
YFT will be releasing its latest findings at the Teaching for a Change conference later this month in Flagstaff, Az.
For more information about Youth First Texas or the comprehensive youth study, contact Dumont online at www.youthfirsttexas.org.
Renee Baker is a licensed massage therapist and transgender diversity consultant and may be reached on her Web site at www.renee-baker.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 5, 2009.