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LGBTQ+ students across NZ report higher rates of discrimination, mental health challenges despite progress

LGBTQ+ students across the country have reported higher rates of discrimination and mental health challenges despite progress being made in schools and the wider community, new findings show. 

Dr John Fenaughty. Source: University of Auckland

Youth19, the latest in a series of surveys focused on young people in Aotearoa, asked 7,721 secondary school-aged students about their experiences at school, home and the wider community.

It found that around half of the LGBT+ respondents were coping well, with a sizeable number reporting positive environments and experiences, co-investigator Dr John Fenaughty, from the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work, said today in a press release. 

However some - especially transgender and diverse gender students - are facing stigma and stress, which Fenaughty called "known drivers that underpin the increased rates of mental health challenges we are seeing". 

Three quarters (73%) of transgender and gender diverse participants - one per cent of those surveyed - reported starting to identify as transgender or gender-diverse before the age of 14. 

A greater proportion of transgender and gender diverse students also reported discrimination and a lack of support than their cisgender peers, including at home, at school and in community and healthcare settings.

More than half (55%) reported they had not been able to access healthcare when they needed it in the past year, with a similar number (57%) reporting significant depressive symptoms and an equal proportion reporting they had self-harmed in the past year.

Fenaughty said while schools are becoming more accepting - with seven out of 10 saying they felt part of their school - nearly a quarter (23%) reported being bullied at school, either weekly or more often, in the past year. Only three out of 10 respondents (23%) said they “always felt safe” in their neighbourhoods.

Lower proportions of transgender and diverse gender youth also reported that a parent “cared about them a lot,” which Fenaughty said may be related to families not understanding or accepting the student's gender. 

“This perceived lack of care, combined with a lack of belonging at school for some of these students, means they may be particularly vulnerable to harm,” he said. 

However despite facing significant challenges, Fenaughty said transgender and gender diverse students were equally as likely to give back to others through volunteering and supporting their communities. 

“Such willingness to support others is an important strength to celebrate and nurture, and we need to ensure that rainbow young people are supported to take on these volunteering roles safely, given they are likely to be facing a range of additional stressors.”

Of the 16 per cent of participants who reported they were same or multiple-sex attracted, not sure, or not attracted to any sex, most reported positive home and family environments. However, they were no more likely to report weekly bullying compared to different-sex attracted young people.

A greater proportion of same and multiple-sex attracted students reported feelings of isolation socially and at school and unsafe environments than their different-sex attracted peers. Just over half (53%) reported significant depressive symptoms and 50 per cent said they had self-harmed in the past year.

Almost one in three (31%) reported being unable to access healthcare when they needed it in the past year.

Fenaughty says adequate healthcare access is an urgent issue for many rainbow students, especially given the higher rates of mental health challenges identified in the surveys. 

“Schools, at all levels, need to have a plan for how they will create rainbow-inclusive environments and attitudes among students and staff."