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Combatting suicide in LGBTQ youth requires a change of mind, according to Utah mental health advocates

Letters spell “encircle” outside of the Encircle house in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.

Letters spell “encircle” outside of the Encircle house in Provo on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

OREM — When Camlyn Giddins was a senior in college, she was struggling with severe situational anxiety. She almost dropped out and wasn't sure if she would make it to graduation, which made her panic. Her father called her and told her, "I don't care if you graduate, I just don't want you to fall apart and lose your beautiful mind."

"That shifted the weight for me," Giddins said, "because (my parents) were afraid of the same thing I was afraid of — losing myself."

She was able to graduate and now works at Encircle, a nonprofit dedicated to building safe spaces for LGBTQ youth, young adults and families, while making sure LGBTQ youth don't lose their "beautiful minds," she said.

Giddins, a community engagement coordinator for Encircle, spoke at Intermountain Healthcare's annual Mental Health Services Awareness Night, "Back to School-Back to Work," at Utah Valley University on Thursday, during a session on the role of diversity and inclusion in mental health.

Suicide is a leading cause of death in Utah, and the state is consistently in the top 10 states in suicide deaths. A large portion of these deaths are youth, and LGTBQ youth are particularly at risk.

The presentation included research that shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are three times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt than heterosexual youth, more than 40% have seriously considered suicide and 29% reported having attempted suicide in the past year. Giddins also shared that 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, almost all of them before age 25.

"Research is hard, because how many people are out? How many people are going to admit these things?" she said. "The sad thing is (these numbers) might be too low. I'm a teacher, so I'm thinking of my classroom, and I'm thinking of what is lost when 40% of them are gone? That affects the entire culture of our home, our school, our community."

And there is a common misconception about why these LGBTQ youth are at risk, Giddins continued.

"There is nothing inherent to the sexual or gender minority brain or body that is predisposed to mental health issues," she said. Rather, it's the reactions people have to their identity and unwelcoming, hostile environments that increase their chance of mental illness, as well as their chance of engaging in risky behaviors like using illegal drugs.

Giddins explained that these youth are not typically struggling because of their sexuality or attractions. The main issue that affects mental health, she said, isn't an identity crisis; it's a belonging crisis, when people reject those identities and create an unsafe environment, forcing youth to hide and live in fear. Giddins said that LGBTQ youth who are rejected by families are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.

The Family Acceptance Project states that rejecting behaviors often include verbal harassment or physical abuse because of the child's LGBTQ identity, excluding the child from family activities, blocking access to LGBTQ friends and resources, blaming the child for discrimination that occurs because of their identity, pressuring the child to be more feminine or masculine, telling them they are shaming their family and making them keep their identity a secret.

"'LGBTQ+ people are not broken. Our reaction to them is what's broken,'" Giddins said, quoting one of Encircle's therapists.

She pointed out that the good news is that the reverse is also true, and these tragic statistics can be lessened when the rejecting behaviors are replaced by behaviors of love, like listening and asking how you can help.

If LGBTQ youth are welcomed and accepted, they have a much higher chance of not just surviving but thriving, which is Encircle's main purpose. The outcomes the organization strives for are positive emotional experience, social connection, emotional skills and authenticity because "these lead to mental wellness."

"It's not just 'live.' It's not 'survive.' It's not 'get by.' It's not 'breathe.' We really want to emphasize the thriving part of life, the whole integrated wellness of living and to kind of celebrate that," Giddins said.

Encircle offers drop-in hours, programming with specific activities, friendship circles and identity-affirming therapy. They have homes in Provo, Salt Lake City, St. George and Heber, with plans to expand into neighboring communities and states.

Suicide prevention resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

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