GARDINER, Maine — With only about a week left in June, Pride Month is winding to an end. But members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community say conversations about equality and LGBTQ+ mental health should continue.
The Trevor Project is a national nonprofit that aims to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth through supports such as a 24/7 crisis line. The group released its 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health earlier this year. It found 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Reported rates were higher among LGBTQ+ youth of color. Nearly one in five transgender and nonbinary youth actually attempted suicide.
The survey also found LGBTQ+ youth who felt very supported by their family reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who didn't feel supported. Rates were also lower among LGBTQ+ youth who found their community and/or school to be supportive. According to the survey, 60 percent of LGBTQ+ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it.
At Gardiner Area High School, students on the Civil Rights Team, or CRT, and Gay-Straight Diversity Alliance are on a mission to help people feel included at school, no matter how they identify. The four students who NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with, however, said what they do isn't always easy or well-received.
"It does get laughed at a little bit. More like it’s kind of a silly little thing. Not really like we’re trying to make a big change," Elise Clockedile, a senior and member of the CRT, said. "I know that a lot of people within the school would feel more heard and seen if they weren’t scared of speaking up like the CRT does."
In moments when the CRT does take action, it faces some backlash.
“On our bulletin board in front of the theater, we had a sheet where people signed their names to pledge to spread inclusion throughout the community," Gigi Grant, another senior who's part of the CRT, said. "There were quite a few signatures, like legit signatures, and then a lot of people wrote slurs and just like other terrible things on there.”
The students said they believe there's still a long ways to go when it comes to promoting acceptance and kindness within the school. That's something senior CRT member Tommy Murphy said is made more challenging by divisions brought on by social media algorithms.
"When you have that kind of divide with the algorithms, that’s all you see. And if that’s all you see, that’s going to be your perception of what’s going on," Murphy said.
Junior Alyssa Henderson is part of the CRT and GSDA. She said a lot of the LGBTQ+ youth she knows at school don't only face problems there. Many also don't have safe spaces at home.
"Most LGBTQ students’ parents, they don’t really accept them that much, which can be very hard coming from someone that you love and someone that’s supposed to love you," Henderson said. "They start to think, ‘If my parents don’t accept me, then how can I accept myself?’"
Gia Drew is the executive director of EqualityMaine. She is "out" now as a transgender woman but said the path to getting there was really tough at times.
"When I was 19, I considered killing myself. I got to that place," Drew said.
Drew said for non-LGBTQ+ youth, the suicide rate is closer to 4 percent, compared to nearly one in two LGBTQ+ youth. Drew said that's because they often don't feel welcome either at home, school, or their place of worship. However, Drew said she thinks there's more hope out there than young people struggling may initially think there is. She herself was pleasantly surprised when her Catholic parents eventually came around to accepting who she is.
"I think a lot of young people, like myself when I was young, are like, 'Oh, they’re never going to understand me, and I’m never going to be accepted,'" Drew said. "I think actually people will accept you, if you give them a chance."
Drew said nearly one in five Maine youth identify as LGBTQ+. Still, she said there's a "loud minority" of people who are anti-LGBTQ+ youth. Drew said the solution isn't to see who can be the loudest – but rather, to instill resiliency in young people, so they can handle online bullying or mean remarks in person. She said despite the negativity online, it can also be a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth.
"In a large rural state like Maine, having access to the Internet and ways to connect to other youth who are like you is life-saving. We know that," Drew said.
Kristel Thyrring, the director of youth programs at NAMI Maine, said The Trevor Project's 2022 survey's numbers might indicate more young people are comfortable talking about their mental health. Still, she said the risk of suicide is a concerning matter.
"Unfortunately, not every young person has a safe home to be at," Thyrring said. "Not every parent and caregiver is loving and accepting of young people that have an identity that doesn’t lie in that cis-gendered aspect.”
Thyrring said it's important for non-LGBTQ+ people who want to be supportive to think of being an ally as a verb rather than a noun.
“When we hear people around us making disparaging comments, call it out," Thyrring said. "If we have language that’s engrained in us, really [be] aware of that and [make] a shift.”
Thyrring said she is hopeful exposure to diversity will help more people become accepting of others who are different than them. She wants to remind LGBTQ+ youth even if things feel terrible now, that doesn't define the rest of your life.
"There’s always the opportunity to grow up and be the adult that you needed that you may not have had," Thyrring said.
EqualityMaine and Nami Maine both provided NEWS CENTER Maine with several organizations and resources for LGBTQ+ youth. They include: