Over a Third of LGBTQ+ Youth Do Not Believe They Will Live Past 35

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For queer and trans youth to thrive, it’s important that they believe they can live long and full-filling lives. Experts have found, however, that many LGBTQ+ young people don’t have high perceived life expectancy.

Over a third of LGBTQ+ youth say they don’t believe they will live past the age of 35, according to recently published data from The Trevor Project’s 2023 National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People. The organization also found that youth of color, trans young people, multisexual teens (bi, pan, etc.), and younger queer youth (ages 13-17) reported a lower life expectancy at higher rates compared to other LGBTQ+ people.

Amid an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ\+ legislation, queer youth are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis.

The findings are pulled from the suicide prevention organization’s annual survey of 28,000 LGBTQ+ young people across the country from ages 13 to 24. Dr. Steven Hobaica, the report’s lead research scientist, tells Them that the research is unique because it dived deep into two broadly unstudied metrics: life purpose and perceived life expectancy.

“A big learning for me was how strongly related perceived life expectancy and a past suicide attempt in last year were,” Hobaica says.

The report found that 36% of LGBTQ+ youth from 13-24 believed they had a low chance of living to age 35. This rate was even higher for LGBTQ+ people who experience minority stress — a unique form of distress experienced by marginalized groups — like trans youth, youth of color, and multisex teens. According to the report, young people who had reported having a suicide attempt in the last year were also more likely to report a low sense of life purpose and were less likely to believe they would life past age 35.

The findings paint a picture of how many LGBTQ+ young do not believe they will live long, full-filled lives, and point to systemic factors making their long-term survival seem unimaginable. From waves of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation to the onslaught of violence against trans people of color, our youth are enduring more and more stress. Below, Them spoke with Hobaica about the broader implications of the survey’s finding along with what life expectancy and life purpose can tell us about LGBTQ+ youth and mental health.

What makes this study different from others on mental health and queer youth? And why were perceived life expectancy and life purpose important variables to tease out?

Perceived life expectancy and life purpose are things that we've asked about in prior surveys, but we really hadn't looked at how those variables related with one another, or with mental health concerns, in LGBTQ+ youth. When we were proposing different ideas for briefs and reports for the year, we also realized there wasn't much in the literature on this topic with queer youth. We thought it was a unique way to ask queer youth about their mental health and suicide, without directly asking about it.

If you talk with an LGBTQ+ young person and they say that they have a low perceived life expectancy, in this case meaning they don't believe that they're going to live past 35, or low levels of life purpose, that might signal that this person could be struggling with their mental health or suicidality. So, instead of having to ask a young person who's queer whether or not they attempted suicide in the last year, or if they're planning on attempting suicide, an alternative could be asking them about their perceived life expectancy and life purpose.

I would love to get into some of the most important findings, particularly the disparities between different groups of LGBTQ youth. Are there certain queer youth who are more likely to experience lower perceived life expectancy and unclear life purpose?

In order to understand who is at high risk for mental health problems, or in this case, low perceived life expectancy and purpose, it is crucial to perform demographic breakdowns. As expected, individuals who typically experience more negative or stressful life experiences, which we can term as minority stress, had higher risk. For example, trans and nonbinary individuals, people of color, those aged 13-17, and individuals who are multi-sexual — which includes people who are bi, pan, and queer — all reported lower perceived life expectancy. These groups also consistently report higher levels of minority stress, which may explain these findings, as minority stress regularly predicts mental health concerns in marginalized groups.

What factors might be contributing to those disparities between groups?

A sobering new study underscores the importance of culturally competent resources.

Even within the LGBTQ+ community, there are specific subgroups that are even more marginalized. It's important to consider the impact of holding multiple minority statuses that intersect, and how that might impact someone's experience in their daily life as a queer person. Not only are they possibly experiencing something negative based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity; they may also experience something negative based on their race or their ethnicity or culture. Additionally, bisexual, pansexual, and queer people are often ostracized by both their heterosexual and monosexual, or gay and lesbian, counterparts due to not fitting into either group. Kids who are aged 13 to 17 also often report greater stressors in comparison to their older peers. These heightened rates of minority stress are related to mental health concerns and suicide, and would also likely be related to perceived life expectancy and life purpose.

Currently, we're seeing a lot of bills that are targeting LGBTQ+ youth in particular. I'm curious if that is something that could factor into the results that we're seeing, particularly for ages 13 to 17?

Yes, absolutely. More research is coming out that shows that policies surrounding LGBTQ+ issues can directly impact the mental health of LGBTQ+ people. If an LGBTQ+ young person lives in a state with a policy that is anti-LGBTQ+ or limits access to something essential, whether that's to gender-affirming care, comprehensive anti-bullying policies at school, gender-inclusive restrooms at school, or comprehensive sexual health education, we can predict that these policies will have a negative impact on their mental health. We have also seen that LGBTQ+ affirming policy, or policy that provides access to what I just described, is related to improvements in the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. Given the strong relationship between perceived life expectancy and life purpose with suicide, we would hypothesize that similar policy would could impact these, as well. Future research should attempt to study this more directly.

Policy can have a direct impact on the mental health of any community and in this instance, queer youth. When we do pass more affirming policies for LGBTQ people, we see improvements in their health.

What can we do to change or at least lessen these disparities?

One main takeaway from this research revolves around how we can incorporate perceived life expectancy and life purpose when assessing the mental health of queer youth. Also, it is possible that by improving one's sense of life purpose, their mental health could also improve. Notably, in order for any intervention to be effective — whether that is a therapeutic intervention or a systemic intervention — the people that it's designed to impact must be deeply considered. If intersectionality is not part of the intervention, it will not be successful, especially for the people who are most marginalized.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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