The challenges facing LGBTQIA+ youth in schools

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated March 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

For a parent, it can be scary to send your child or teen to a school environment where you won’t be able to look out for them. And this fear can be even worse if you think your child may be targeted for harassment because of their sexual or gender identity. You’re probably eager to know what you can expect your child to face and how you can support your LGBTQIA+ children through it. What kinds of challenges do LGBTQIA+ youth encounter in today’s schools?

Learn ways to support mental health of LGBTQIA+ youth

Though progress toward LGBTQIA+ youth inclusion has been made in many places, many LGBTQIA+ youth in the US continue to face higher levels of bullying and an increased risk for discrimination in school. They may also find that their education doesn’t address their experiences, which can result in confusion, feelings of exclusion, and unhealthy behavior. Fortunately, community pressure in favor of inclusive policies and proposed bills like the Student Non-Discrimination Act can often improve outcomes for LGBTQIA+ students. 

Bullying and harassment of LGBTQIA+ youth

According to the National Center For Education Statistics, students who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or not sure about their sexual or gender identity were more likely to be verbally harassed and experience bullying at school than heterosexual students. Bullying can encompass a wide range of behaviors, but the incidence of everything from verbal taunting to physical violence was higher for students with minority orientations or identities.

Just how common are these experiences for LGBTQIA+ students? Based on 2019 information and a national survey from the Centers For Disease Control:

  • 13.5% of queer youth felt unsafe at school (as compared to 7.5% of heterosexual adolescents)
  • 32% reported being bullied within the past 12 months (vs. 17.1% of heterosexual students)
  • 26.6% experienced electronic bullying (vs. 14.1% of their heterosexual peers)
  • 11.9% had been threatened or injured with a weapon (vs. 6.3% of heterosexual students)

Unfortunately, when compared with figures from prior years, it’s not clear whether bullying of LGBTQIA+ youth is decreasing. Some types of harmful behavior actually showed higher incidence than in 2015.

Discrimination against LGBTQIA+ youth in schools

In addition to bullying from other students, non-heterosexual teens may deal with discriminatory treatment from faculty, administration, and staff. A report released in 2016 by Human Rights Watch highlighted several common ways in which school policies marginalized, excluded, and silenced LGBTQIA+ youth. Students reported being:

  • Denied admittance to school events
  • Prevented from organizing groups like Gay-Straight Alliances
  • Misgendered
  • Denied educational resources about safe sex and LGBTQIA+ topics

Some teachers even participated in or tacitly encouraged homophobic and transphobic mockery and peer victimization. Not only can this type of behavior from faculty and staff encourage bullying by students, but it can also negatively affect academic achievement, well-being, and self-esteem.

Mental and behavioral health of queer students

The prevalence of bullying and discrimination against students with non-traditional sexualities or gender identities may contribute to a variety of negative mental health effects and physical health outcomes. CDC reports on youth and adolescent health show that LGBTQIA+ students are more likely to:

  • Experience long-lasting feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Report poor mental health “most of the time or always”, including persistent depression, anxiety, or stress
  • Give serious thought to suicide or make a plan to take suicidal action
  • Actually have attempted suicide

Studies have also repeatedly shown that queer youth are more likely than their peers to engage in behaviors with known health risks – like substance misuse. They tend to use alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs at higher rates, and they’re more likely to have tried these substances at an early age. Unsafe sexual behaviors such as having sex without condoms and using drugs before sex also seem to be more common among youth who did not identify as heterosexual. This vulnerable population also has a 120% higher risk of becoming homeless youth or experiencing some type of homelessness. 

Research suggests that these high-risk behaviors are more prevalent among LGBTQIA+ teens and young adults who encounter discrimination, bullying, and exclusion in school. Lack of peer support may remove an important incentive for young people to avoid health risk. Low self-esteem as a result of bullying might also be one of the risk factors that promote reckless behavior. For many adolescents, the use of intoxicating substances can be an attempt to self-medicate in response to depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. 

Sometimes schools themselves can be venues for potentially unhealthy behavior. For example, the CDC found that gay, lesbian, or bisexual students were more likely than others to have received or been offered illegal drugs on school property.

What can schools do to support LGBTQIA+ youth?

While federal funding and support is important, the available research points to many ways that educators and school administrators can combat the problems described above. A 2020 literature review suggested that high school students in schools with more LGBTQIA+ positive climates were at significantly lower risk of depressive symptoms and suicidal thinking. And certain changes can go a long way toward cultivating a more welcoming environment, including:

Implementing anti-bullying policies 

Educators may sometimes be skeptical that school policies can have a meaningful impact on bullying. It’s easy to assume that students inclined to pick on their peers will simply disregard the rules. But studies indicate that rules forbidding bullying based on sexual orientation do lead to safer schools and lower levels of LGBTQIA+ victimization.

Investing in LGBTQIA+-informed professional development

The presence of supportive adults can make a major difference in mental health outcomes for struggling youth. Yet many education professionals feel ill-equipped to support adolescents with minority sexual and gender identities. Proper training may help. Researchers have found that counselors with more education in LGBTQIA+-specific issues are more confident and more likely to offer support to queer students.

Enabling student organizations

Students may be another important source of support for their peers. Student-led organizations promoting LGBTQIA+ acceptance, such as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) can provide resources and a sense of community for queer youth. They also appear to help reduce the frequency of homophobic bullying and discrimination. By encouraging these groups in their schools and promoting acceptance, administrators can help foster better outcomes for students and decrease the amount of LGBTQIA+ youth problems.

Providing relevant health education

Student instruction on topics such as sexual health may fail to address the unique needs and experiences of queer youth. The available science suggests that changing this could be key to improving health outcomes in these populations. For instance, a 2001 study showed that including material relevant to non-heterosexual sex in a school HIV infection prevention program led to lower rates of risky sexual decisions among participating LGBTQIA+ students, decreasing HIV risk. 

Adopting explicit anti-discrimination policies

Clear direction from school administrations may help prevent discriminatory behavior from faculty and staff. In the absence of policies explicitly prohibiting unequal treatment based on sexual orientation, teachers with homophobic attitudes may feel free to mistreat LGBTQIA+ students. 

How can parents keep their LGBTQIA+ children safe in school?

Are you concerned about the risks your children may face in school due to their sexual orientation or gender identity? Fortunately, parental support can make a real difference in mental health outcomes. 

A 2010 paper reported that LGBTQIA+ youth who had an affirming family environment and family acceptance had substantially better mental health outcomes than those who experienced family rejection. Feeling safe about parental love and acceptance seems to defend against depression, harmful substance use, risky sexual behavior, and negative health outcomes. 

It may also be important to engage with your child’s school, making it clear to educators that you expect them to implement inclusive policies. Surveys show that one of the most common reasons why teachers hesitate to adopt queer-friendly education is that they’re afraid parents will object. By making your voice heard in favor of a more welcoming school climate, you may be able to help steer local schools toward policies that take care of your children.

Learn ways to support mental health of LGBTQIA+ youth

Therapy can help you better support your child

Even if you’re eager to affirm and uplift your LGBTQIA+ children, you may not be sure how. You might find it helpful to work with a trained therapist who can advise you based on up-to-date research. They may also be able to give you some insight into the mental health challenges that queer adolescents commonly face and offer suggestions about how to help.

If you’re not sure where to find a therapist in your area who has experience with LGBTQIA+-specific care, you might want to pursue therapy online. This opens up a much wider range of potential providers. Remote counseling may also be easier to attend as a busy parent! Instead of commuting to a therapist’s office, you can communicate with a mental health professional from your own home.

The effectiveness of internet-based psychotherapy has been repeatedly demonstrated in clinical trials. Researchers assessing the state of the scientific literature concluded that there was “strong support for the adoption of online psychological interventions as a legitimate therapeutic activity.” They found no evidence of reduced effectiveness for online therapy compared to in-person treatment. If you’re interested in finding a therapist online, BetterHelp’s online platform can help you connect.


Adolescents with minority sexual or gender identities often have to contend with higher rates of bullying and violence in school, and may even experience discrimination at the hands of educators. This can harm their mental health and increase the likelihood of unhealthy behaviors such as drug use and unprotected sex. However, adopting LGBTQIA+-friendly policies can significantly improve outcomes, and support from parents and peers may make an important difference.
Find support with life challenges
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started