William isn't allowed to tell his LGBTQ students he's on their side, so he has to do it in code. When he overhears them chatting with friends, he strains to absorb the language they use with one another and repeat it one-on-one. In counseling sessions, he refers to the significant others of students and school staff as their "partners" instead of "boyfriends" or "girlfriends."

He had second thoughts about hanging a sign in his office that reads: "Your identity is not an issue."


"I actually checked with my bosses ahead of time," he says. "They were like, 'Nope, you’re good!'"

As a middle-school psychologist in Virginia, William (who requested his real name not be used, for fear of retaliation) has always had to skirt around school board rules restricting his ability to address the fears and challenges of his lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer students out loud. But things have changed.

Before January, William says he would hear a homophobic or transphobic slur from a colleague (not all bullies are students, it turns out) maybe once a month. Now, he says, those voices have gotten much louder — and more persistent.

"The sad part is I can't be as loud as they can be without getting in trouble," he says.

For many school psychologists, sticking up for their LGBTQ students in the Trump era feels a lot like paddling over a cultural tidal wave.

Their efforts are frequently complicated by having to navigate a patchwork of guidelines and legislation governing what they can and can't say, and what they must reveal to parents if asked. Eight states restrict how teachers discuss some LGBTQ topics in schools.

That leaves some educators worried they're not doing enough.

"I’m seeing school counselors who were maybe feeling like they were sitting pretty with their programs and what they had been offering their LGBTQ youth at their sites now ramping it up," says Catherine Griffith, assistant professor of student development at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst School of Education. That means asking for more trainings and workshops, particularly on how to talk about trans-specific issues, like pronoun usage and bathroom conflicts.

A student in Massachusetts works on homework. Photo by Jewel Samad/Getty Images.

Griffith recommends approaching conversations with struggling students by listening first and recognizing their expertise on their own lives. She also endorses approaches like William's, in which counselors use visual cues (like a sign hanging in an office) and specific language to signal support. Her research into interventions for LGBTQ youth led to the development of a curriculum — which she distributes free to educators — that emphasizes the helpfulness of organized groups to combat social isolation.

For students, Griffith explains, the ability to organize helps them learn from peers, develop a sense of altruism, and bear witness to others' challenges, especially when it feels like voices in positions of authority are aligned against them.

While William struggles to sneak a kind word to a struggling eighth-grader, 3,000 miles away, the kids in Cynthia Olaya's Campus Pride Club are lighting bonfires on the beach.

A 14-year veteran psychologist from Long Beach, California, Olaya looks younger than her 40 years, a stroke of genetic good fortune that she believes makes it easier for students to open up to her.

"I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to use that," she jokes.

Here in Fountain Valley, where she helps oversee the two-decade-old group, the Trump administration feels far away — literally and figuratively. Earlier this year, when rumors began swirling that the president was prepared to sign an executive order allowing business owners who cite religious convictions to discriminate against LGBTQ customers, her principal addressed the controversy, bluntly, over the school loudspeaker.

"He said, 'Don’t worry students. We’ve still got your back,'" Olaya recalls.

The club, formerly a Gay-Straight Alliance, recently rebranded to be "more trans-inclusive." Her LGBTQ students benefit, she explains, not only from the group, but from robust institutional support and, perhaps most critically, support from their elected representatives. Last year, the state board of education approved a measure requiring that schools add the contributions of LGBTQ Americans to history lessons as early as second grade. A 2017 law bans state-funded travel to states that have anti-LGBTQ laws on the books. In California, there are no rules preventing her from freely discussing her students' gender and sexual orientation.

Her students are worried about what the Trump administration might do to rollback their rights, but most are not panicking — yet.

"I think they feel like, 'We’re safe here,'" she says.

The Trump administration has alternated between playing coy with LGBTQ rights and launching an all-out assault on the policies of the Obama administration.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

At times, both approaches appear to be on the table simultaneously. The draconian religious freedom order Olaya's students feared in February turned out to be little more than a symbolic statement when it was signed in May. The president announced a similarly harsh measure to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military — but has yet to take steps to implement it. The military, it appears, is ignoring it for the time being.

How LGBTQ kids fare in this whipsaw environment can have less to do with how much their counselors want to help and more with the institutional and legal frameworks that govern how much they can help.

Some communities have followed the president's lead in loosening, or refusing to enforce, current protections. Others are resisting the charge.

In some places — the jury is still out.

Holiday, Florida, is an area in constant transition. In the middle school where psychologist Jacalyn Kay Jackson works, immigrants and students of color mix with white students from "more conservative" families. Many arrive in the district for a year or two before moving on. 80% are on reduced or free lunch. Many are LGBTQ.

Since the inauguration, Jackson says her students have been showing "more anxiety" than usual. While Muslim and immigrant students have received the bulk of harassment from their right-wing peers, the backlash has been stinging her LGBTQ kids as well.

"We did have some transgender students and gender-nonconforming students who were worried that some of the rights that they felt that they had fought hard for were being taken away," she says.

Jackson has held the role of LGBTQ liaison for her district since last school year — and she's thrilled about it. She spends half a day a week teaching other educators in the district how to best support gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and trans youth, how to navigate locker and restroom issues, and how to create safe spaces for discussion and recovery from trauma. She's working on a 60-page best practices guide, which she plans to distribute to teachers in her district this coming school year. Despite the occasional complaint, her district is fully behind her work — which gives her much-needed cover.

In her area of Florida, the 2016 shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub opened a lot of eyes to the dangers LGBTQ youth face. She hesitates to call it a "silver lining," but that's the phrase that comes to mind. More parents have been going to Pride parades. Many who were formally opposed to, or equivocating on, expanding LGBTQ rights in the district have come around a bit.

"Not that they’re actively supportive, but maybe they’re more possibly supportive, perhaps because it hit closer to home than it ever has been," Jackson says.

A person builds a balloon rainbow near the site of the Pulse shooting in Orlando. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

It's not a cakewalk. Some students in Jackson's school still face rejection from their families. As the Trump administration attempts to dismantle Title IX guidelines and rollback trans-inclusive policies in the military, LGBTQ kids, she explains, need a "buffer to what [they're] hearing on the news," which for many, isn't at home.

Still, with support strong and growing, at school, that "buffer" appears to be holding — for now.

The only reason her work is possible in this social and political climate, she explains, is the last five years of rapid-fire progress toward LGBTQ inclusion and equality.

"Kids really heard a message when marriage equality came through, and prior to that as some of the individual states started recognizing marriage equality," she says. Meanwhile, parents and colleagues who were previously supportive are looking for ways to be more supportive — particularly of trans students.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

"A lot of them were wondering, 'What pronoun do I use?' and 'How do I support them?' and 'How do I have this conversation?'" Olaya says.

Even in areas where it's hard to keep the door open, there are signs that a metaphorical lock has been smashed off. William recalls counseling one student whose relatives were debating sending her cousin to a conversion therapy camp, and she was worried she would be next. Students, especially younger ones, who reveal too much about their sexuality to teachers often run the risk of being outed to their parents, even if the crisis originates at home. This student, like many others, knew she could come to William for help and that he would keep her confidence.

"The kids know how to ask the right kinds of questions," he says.

Increasingly, their school psychologists are trying to find the space to send the right message back.

"The message is: We’re listening, we’re here for you."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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