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Cirecie A. West-Olatunji, Ph.D. Headshot

Creating Safe and Welcoming Spaces for LGBTQ Youth

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In February 2014, the American Counseling Association (ACA) co-sponsored the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) inaugural Time to Thrive Conference, an event designed to promote safety, inclusion and well-being for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth by empowering youth-serving professionals and LGBTQ advocates through education and inspiration.

During the conference, we were thrilled to see Academy Award-nominated actress Ellen Page bravely come out and hear the voices of many other courageous youth who have overcome obstacles in their educational, familial and social lives. Page is not alone in her decision to come out publicly. Earlier this year, the University of Missouri's Michael Sam publicly came out, making him the first openly gay National Football League player, if he is drafted.

Despite the praise and support Page and Sam have received from the public, research shows that LGBTQ youth in America struggle with prejudgments and rejection.

In fact, studies find 71 percent of school-aged youth report hearing anti-LGBTQ remarks in their schools and 64 percent said that they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Recent studies also find that compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ youth experience significantly higher levels of violence, aggression and bullying from their peers and families. As a result, these youth are at an increased risk for substance abuse, homelessness, sexually risky behavior and suicidal ideation.

Professional counselors are trained and ready to help.

They know that the first step in supporting LGBTQ youth is to establish a safe environment in which to engage. This may be a place to explore uncertainties, establish a level of comfort regarding identity, or even formulate a plan for coming out. In school settings, professional counselors also actively advocating for LGBTQ youth by educating their peers using psychoeducational groups, classroom guidance activities and school-wide initiatives. The focus is on creating a culture of inclusiveness and respect among the student body. Additionally, professional counselors promote safe environments by empowering LGBTQ youth to advocate for themselves through student groups, such as the Gay Student Alliance, on campuses.

Social networks also play a critical role in the health and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth. Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is a national group with local chapters that provides information and support throughout the year. These types of groups often provide training in partnership with professional counselors. The goal is to improve the personal, day-to-day environment for LGBTQ youth by reducing bias and discrimination from peers and family members.

Familial support is a key factor in feeling safe, nurtured and supported regardless of sexuality; yet approximately half of LGBTQ youth believe they have an adult family member to whom they could turn for help when feeling worried or sad compared to 79 percent of their non-LGBTQ peers. When working with LGBTQ youth, professional counselors often focus on identifying an adult member of the family or extended family who is nonjudgmental and willing to learn about the vulnerabilities of LGBTQ youth so they may serve as a beacon during challenging times.

More serious steps taken for LGBTQ youth include interventions for homeless and suicidal children and adolescents. Due to the physical, verbal and emotional abuses that they frequently face, LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk for running away and self-injury than their non-LGBTQ peers. Professional counselors are clinically trained to provide individual, group and family counseling to aid LGBTQ youth in stabilizing their home life while addressing issues of self-esteem, self-worth and self-actualization. And we often attempt to connect individuals to other youth who have overcome some of the initial challenges in coming out. HRC and the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network have been instrumental in providing resources for professional counselors and other mental health service providers.

Most importantly, the ACA Code of Ethics serves as a foundation that all practicing professional counselors must follow. Cornerstones include:

• Homosexuality is not a mental disorder.

• Reparative therapy is not supported or promoted.

• Professional counselors do not impose their religious beliefs on any client.

At the Time to Thrive Conference, Page stated, "You have ideas planted in your head, thoughts you never had before, that tell you how you have to act, how you have to dress and who you have to be. I have been trying to push back, to be authentic, to follow my heart, but it can be hard."

Professional counselors strive to eliminate bias toward LGBTQ youth and reduce homophobia to create safe and welcoming spaces for all children and adolescents. While we know the path is difficult, it is our sincere hope that all those who "struggle to push back" will one day feel empowered to embrace who they are and make that important, life-affirming decision to follow their hearts.

We are here to help along the way.

Need help? Visit The Trevor Project or call them at 1-866-488-7386. You can also call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.