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Higher education continues to grapple with change as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third calendar year. Though the pandemic has presented challenges across the globe, COVID-19 has disproportionately affected college and university students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+). This is why college and university leaders must understand and utilize best practices for creating a campus and learning environment that reduces psychological distress and improves a sense of belonging for LGBTQ+ college students.
The Proud and Thriving Report, published by The JED Foundation (JED) in collaboration with The Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, gives higher education administrators a comprehensive framework to enhance support systems for college and university students who identify as LGBTQ+. With findings from literature reviews and multiple research studies, it offers a deeper understanding of the risk and protective factors experienced by LGBTQ+ students, as well as a starting point to address psychological distress and improve belonging.
Risk factors for LGBTQ+ students
What are the risk factors commonly connected to LGBTQ+ students? Let’s take a close look at the data. Although colleges and universities strive to assist students in building connections between students, faculty, and staff, LGBTQ+ students experience more rejection, victimization, and disciplinary action than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Research shows that LGBTQ+ students are more likely to misuse substances, experience eating disorders, and have suicidal ideation or attempt and self-injury. Additionally, several interpersonal factors exist due to societal prejudices and discrimination of people with marginalized gender identities or sexual orientations.
Structural risk factors also exist within the LGBTQ+ student experience. These can take the form of pressure to conform to campus norms and/or barriers to engaging in academic and co-curricular activities. Institutions that do not collect data on gender identity and/or sexual identity can contribute to these inequities. When the unique needs of LGBTQ+ students are not accounted for, it’s impossible for the necessary advocacy efforts, support systems, and resources to be in place.
Students of color who identify as LGBTQ+ experience even higher risk rates of physical and mental health concerns, and have greater barriers to overcome in building protective factors and accessing services and support that can enhance their well-being.
Protective factors for LGBTQ+ students
JED’s report also highlights individual, interpersonal, and structural protective factors that support LGBTQ+ student well-being. Here’s a closer look at what each of these protections means:
- Individual protective factors include characteristics that demonstrate a belief of one’s own worth and ability to be cognitively flexible, resilient, and self-affirming.
- Interpersonal protective factors include having people such as family, friends, role models, and mentors who are identity affirming and foster connectedness.
- Structural protective factors include policies and procedures that are equitable and take into consideration the disparities that exist for LGBTQ+ students.
Education and professional development training for employees and the addition of services specifically for LGBTQ+ students are supplemental structural protective factors that create an inclusive and safe environment.
How to enhance support systems for LGBTQ+ college students
For colleges and universities, it’s important to invest in programs and initiatives that are dedicated to partnering with higher education to equitably address the needs of college students. In order to promote equity and support LGBTQ+ students, campus administrators can utilize The Proud and Thriving Report’s framework to address the individual, interpersonal, and structural risk factors and promote protective factors in the following ways:
1. Assess LGBTQ+ student needs
Start by building ways to collect LGBTQ+ demographic information. This is the first step to assess and address student needs. You can start by adding these types of demographic questions to existing surveys. Also, utilizing a surveillance tool to capture data on health, well-being, and school climate, you can better understand the experiences of LGBTQ+ college students.
This data analysis should include findings by demographics and an intersectional analysis to account for the needs of LGBTQ+ students of color. In addition to assessing needs, your campus may also uncover data showing what campus-based services are effective or need to be added. This data can be used to validate what services need to be reinforced, expanded, or developed to fill identified gaps.
2. Create equitable policies and procedures
Review diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to ensure anti-discrimination and anti-harassment school policies and procedures are clear. This information should be shared with all students on a regular basis. As part of these policies, your students should have the opportunity to use their chosen name, pronouns, and gender identity on school records.
Other things to review include housing, attire, health insurance and health service procedures, clubs/sports/organizations, and facilities to ensure your school’s policies are inclusive. This ensures that students have a choice and can control the creation of safe spaces for learning and/or living (i.e. roommate selection, dress codes, restrooms, and participation in activities).
3. Offer LGBTQ+-inclusive support
It’s critical that your school provides programs and services for individual and group support to LGBTQ+ students related to personal skill development and mental well-being strategies. These initiatives will enhance the development of protective factors, cultivate relationships, and create support networks for students who participate.
Support can take many different forms. One emerging form is telehealth and virtual health specific to college students in the form of an app or platform. This virtual care option enables live and on-demand access to expert doctors, psychologists, and health coaches on a variety of relevant topics that increase students’ awareness, knowledge, and skills so they are motivated to make healthy changes to enhance their well-being.
4. Educate the campus community on LGBTQ+
Your school’s faculty and staff members must be trained in understanding LGBTQ+ issues. Placing a focus on training that supports LGBTQ+ students will promote and enhance an inclusive and welcoming campus environment. If the opportunity exists to integrate an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, it can give students the opportunity to learn about LGBTQ+ topics in an academic setting.
Co-curricular opportunities to learn about LGBTQ+ topics can go beyond just engaging your students. They offer a broader opportunity to engage community members through active learning programs, workshops, and events, as well as through information shared via campus communication channels.
5. Eliminate barriers to care and support
As with other student populations on your campus, LGBTQ+ students face unique barriers to care and support services. Understanding and making the effort to remove these barriers will help students maintain and enhance their physical and mental health, which will positively impact their academic success. As noted above, it’s important to collect data and connect with LGBTQ+ students to understand what limits their access and what physical or mental barriers exist.
Be sure that student privacy is honored in any data collection, and that employees are trained or can refer students to internal or external resources that specialize in care for students who identify as LGBTQ+. Part of removing barriers to care means investing in programs that are intentional in hiring providers with diverse identities, characteristics, and training. As a result, students who seek care can select a provider based on identity and specialty. This intentional focus on representation expands the network of support, eliminates barriers to access care, and aligns your services with students’ needs.
6. Increase awareness of student support services
Many students and employees may already be aware of the support services your campus offers. But there is a danger in assuming that every student, faculty, or staff member fully understands all the resources available. This assumption alone creates barriers for both the general and LGBTQ+ student population. It also limits the opportunities for new or returning students—as well as employees—to learn how to access, utilize, or refer to support services.
If you haven’t already, now is the time to create a systematic awareness campaign, training, and/or marketing plan to ensure that all community members understand the support services your campus offers. This information empowers students to utilize the resources for themselves and refer other students if a need arises. The more familiar that students, faculty, and staff members are with the services and support available, the more likely they will utilize or refer other students to those services.
Higher education’s opportunity to support LGBTQ+ students
College and university leaders have an opportunity to serve the holistic needs of their diverse student populations. By implementing a strategic framework that builds on the protective factors that support LGBTQ+ students and addresses the risk factors that can negatively impact their total health and well-being and academic success, you can help create an inclusive, supportive, and welcoming environment. This type of campus—one that promotes individual, interpersonal, and structural systems of support—is a critical best practice for improving health outcomes for LGBTQ+ students so they can succeed and thrive in college.
What type of mental health programs and initiatives does your college or university invest in today? Providing resources that recognize the needs of LGBTQ+ students helps show your campus’ commitment to the LGBTQ+ community. TimelyCare, the leading virtual health and well-being solution for students, is committed to having diverse providers who are trained in cultural competencies and able to communicate with college students. Virtual care options eliminate barriers and can help improve the health and well-being of your students. Contact TimelyCare to learn more about what types of telehealth and virtual care programs are available.