Learning Lessons

More needs to be done to ensure the mental health of LGBTQ+ post-secondary students
By Sarah B. Hood
There’s never been a stranger time to be in school. Students have been piecing their schedules together between in-person and online learning, never certain when the next COVID-19 outbreak may disrupt the fragile equilibrium. In a May 2020 survey by the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, 70 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students reported feeling stressed, anxious or isolated.
For LGBTQ+ students, who statistically experience higher levels of anxiety, the situation is even worse, and experts are calling for additional support to help them cope with their unique challenges. “Adding a whole pandemic only increases the need for mental-health support to LGBTQ+ students,” says Ahmed Abdallah, intersectionality and diversity education coordinator with the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity.
Part of the challenge is that there is insufficient understanding of LGTBQ+ student needs, and little research being conducted to gain better insight, explains Abdallah, who is also the 2spirit and queer commissioner for the Canadian Federation of Students. “There is a general lack of support in terms of finding out what LGBTQ+ students need,” he notes. “Institutions will assume what students need, and sometimes they get it right, like providing safe spaces. Other times, they get it wrong and they need a more appropriate system for finding out what students need.”
Educational institutions often adopt a window-dressing approach when what is really needed is far more substantial. Abdallah calls for more support to address all types of harassment, and less of what he calls the performative aspects, i.e., token gestures “like a sidewalk painted with a rainbow flag.” While commendable, these gestures fail to address the real problem. “That’s one big thing that post-secondary institutions get wrong,” says Abdallah.
In May of 2019, a report titled LGBTQ2 Health Policy: Addressing the Needs of LGBTQ2 Post-Secondary Students shed more light on the situation. Developed by the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity and submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, the report was ground-breaking in its reach. It was based on the organization’s study Querying Canadian Higher Education (QCHE), which drew its information from a separate survey of more than 39,000 Canadian postsecondary students in 41 Canadian schools in 2016.
The ultimate takeaway was that LGBTQ2 students face far more mental challenges then their straight colleagues and that more needs to be done in the way of support. Among those surveyed, LGBTQ2 students reported higher levels of victimization than cisgender heterosexual students, ranging from verbal threats all the way to physical or sexual assault.
The report further noted that LGBTQ2 students reported poorer outcomes in the previous 12 months than cisgender heterosexual students across all mental health indicators. Of particular concern was that rates of attempted suicides were more than three times higher for LGBTQ2 students, while rates of depression diagnosis were more than double. The report recommended that the federal government collaborate with provinces, territories, post-secondary institutions, community organizations and LGBTQ2 researchers to develop policy frameworks specifically addressing the needs of LGBTQ2 post-secondary students. It also called for dedicated funding and support for data collection and analysis. More specific recommendations included the provision of gender-neutral washrooms and genderinclusive housing.
Culturally responsive services in mental health and wellness, as well as academic advising, were also mentioned. “Right now, there’s a really big need to provide psychological and emotional support to students, specifically LGBTQ+,” agrees Abdallah, explaining that it’s about creating a safer network for LGBTQ+ students “to feel comfortable in themselves… not the painted sidewalks.”
Michael R. Woodford, associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University and one of the report’s authors, agrees. He says it’s not enough simply to guess what LGBTQ+ students need to thrive on campus; more research-based insight must be developed. Woodford points to the U.S. where quite a bit more progress has been made in this area and mentions student centres funded by universities for their LGBTQ2 community as an example. “We have data that demonstrates that students who are connected with those centres have higher levels of mental health,” says Woodward, adding that Laurier has similar spaces at both its campuses. “In the U.S., there’s a lot more attention given to campus climate for a range of groups, including LGBTQ2. Many of our colleagues in Canada have learned from the U.S.”
Also important, says Woodford, are systems that allow students to change their own names on college records, something that’s become more important since the start of the pandemic given that professors may only see the “official” name – without a face attached – in the online classroom.
Clearly, a comprehensive approach is needed if universities and government are to make positive strides in improving LGBTQ+ wellness on campus. With better awareness and the right initiatives in place, universities and colleges can become more welcoming environments for all their students. “We have to anticipate these things,” Woodford says. “It’s [about] bringing that kind of awareness, a lens to anticipate these kinds of changes.”