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Family Acceptance: Groundbreaking 'Best Practice' for Reducing Suicide Risk for LGBT Youth

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Twenty-year-old Javie came to a youth shelter after his mom and stepfather forced him out of their home. He was depressed and had been drinking regularly with friends after fights with his parents about his clothes and his friends, and especially after they discovered he had a boyfriend. Javie had attempted suicide when he was 13, was hospitalized for a week, and was in counseling on and off throughout his adolescence. His mom regularly criticized his behavior and often asked when he was going to get a girlfriend. Javie had made a plan to commit suicide one morning, but after getting into a fight with his stepfather about the kinds of friends he hung out with, Javie left the house with a bag of clothes and went to a friend's house, where he stayed before finding a youth shelter.

Javie's story is far from unique. LGBT teen suicides have tragically become more visible than ever in recent years, and experts across many fields have looked for answers to both explain and prevent such tragedies. Those of us who provide services to LGBT youth (including my organization, Green Chimneys NYC) are increasingly vigilant in looking for signs of suicidal thoughts, evidence of being bullied, and psychological symptoms such as depression and isolation. We provide a safe haven for LGBT youth who have been kicked out from their family homes or who have fled abuse by their families. Thus we know that the support that families offer, or the lack thereof, can make all the difference in the lives of these youth. Research bears us out: The Family Acceptance Project (FAP) has found that youth who are accepted by their families are at significantly lower risk of suicidality, depression, HIV, drug use, and more. Even a small movement by family members toward acceptance can have a significant positive impact.

We now have a new, powerful tool to build these vital connections between LGBT youth and their families: FAP's Supportive Families, Healthy Children booklet, which educates families about the positive impacts of accepting their LGBT children. And in what is truly monumental news for those in my field, the Suicide Prevention Resource Council, the leading suicide prevention organization, has granted Supportive Families its Best Practices designation -- the first of its kind for a suicide-prevention tool aimed specifically at LGBT youth. This designation will help bring this valuable and life-saving material to service providers in many fields, a huge step in acknowledging that there are many service areas in which we can decrease the negative affects of family rejection and help LGBT youth and their families have stronger relationships -- in schools, through crisis response services, in mental health clinics, at youth shelters, and more.

What makes Supportive Families, and indeed all of FAP's work, so remarkable is that it is culturally sensitive to a diverse set of families, allowing it to be used for a broad range of people. It is printed in multiple languages (English, Spanish, and Cantonese, with more to come) and addresses religiously conservative families in a way that any parent or caretaker can relate to. And the central message is straightforward and consistent: that accepting your LGBT child will have a dramatic impact on his or her health, well-being, and future. Among foster care, homeless, and other out-of-home youth, like the youth served by Green Chimneys NYC, we see the most devastating outcomes, caused by layers of trauma, abuse, rejection, and instability. These are the populations that are most in need of intervention -- intervention by well-equipped professionals who can readily identify those at high risk and have effective tools to intervene in that risk.

FAP, and Green Chimneys NYC, as well, are realistic about the outcomes of such intervention. Many parents and family members come from conservative cultural and religious traditions that make it very difficult for them to fully accept their children.. But outcomes are not binary; there is a middle ground between full rejection and full acceptance. We can help even conservative families understand that minimizing specific rejecting behaviors can be enough to save their child's life.

Supportive Families, in short, is not just a booklet but a vital new tool that service providers and families should embrace. This service will help save lives. People around the country, from all walks of life and up to the White House, know that LGBT youth need to feel supported, that they aren't alone, and that it will get better. Together, we can also embrace that families can be a place of healing, of refuge, of affirmation, a way to counteract the bullying and harassment that a youth may experience out in the world. And by increasing affirmation a little bit at a time, we can change the world for LGBT youth.