Rates of mental health issues are rising among postsecondary students. According to data from the 2018–2019 Healthy Minds Study (conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; Healthy Minds Network, 2019), almost 40% of postsecondary students—or about 8 million students nationwide—reported experiencing a significant mental health problem. That same survey found that 60% of college undergraduates had been having an increasingly difficult time accessing mental health care. These concerns are even greater given the increased stress and trauma brought on by the pandemic. A 2020 survey by the American Council on Education found that 68% of university presidents ranked student mental health concerns as among their most pressing issues.
When disaggregating the data, findings indicate LGTBQ+ students experience more mental health challenges than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Trevor Project, 83% of LGBTQ+ students surveyed said they had experienced stress over the past 6 months, compared with 71% of non-LGBTQ+ students. Sixty-seven percent of LGBTQ+ students said they felt lonely or isolated, and 55% expressed feelings of hopelessness, compared with 49% and 35% of non-LGBTQ+ students, respectively.
Why are these rates so high? Why are LGTBQ+ students experiencing higher levels of mental health related issues than their counterparts?
The pandemic context may be a contributing factor. Virtual learning spaces often find LGTBQ+ students back in home environments that were not as supportive as their college environments and unable to access the on-campus resources and safe spaces. However, even with the return to on-campus learning, a 2022 survey by BestColleges (Bryant, 2022) found that one in four LGBTQ+ college students has considered dropping out of school because of mental health challenges. The transition to postsecondary education can be difficult for students due to the sheer complexity of the new space. For LGBTQ+ college students, this difficulty can be amplified by challenges regarding navigating their identities. These challenges include being disconnected from supportive social networks, coming out to new friends and peers, and struggling to find LGBTQ+-affirming spaces on campus.
How can institutions of higher education address the mental health crisis facing postsecondary institutions, specifically our LGTBQ+ students?
One promising strategy institutions of higher education are using is peer counseling. Peer counseling can be defined as “people from similar groupings who are not professionals who help to clarify life problems and identify solutions by listening; clarifying; feeding back; summarizing; questioning and being positive, supportive and reassuring and then helping plan, organize and problem-solve” (Topping, 2022). Some groups of students are particularly likely to use peer counseling (Mary Christie Institute et al., 2022), including those with specific identities such as transgender students (39%), Black students (39%), and first-generation college students (29%). Because these groups of students experience service bridges gaps and report not feeling as though they are represented in the counseling center, peer counseling provides an opportunity for marginalized groups like LGBTQ+ students with shared identities and experiences, including LGBTQ+ students, to heal together via peer counseling.
According to a recent report (surveying over 2,000 students) from the Mary Christie Institute, the Born This Way Foundation, and the MassINC Polling Group (Mary Christie Institute et al., 2022):
- One in five students shared that they participated in peer counseling; 60% of those who have tried it said the service is helpful. Of the students who have not tried peer counseling, 62% shared they have interest in doing so.
- Black, transgender, and first-generation college students reported finding a peer counselor who shared their identities experiences was “very important” to them.
- Students who serve as peer counselors reported a desire to help others and a higher sense of well-being.
- However, while peer counselors reported receiving training, 16% of peer counselors shared they were not aware of emergency protocols if they become concerned for a student’s safety.
The rates of common mental disorders are rising among students in postsecondary education, particularly in the LGTBQ+ community. LGBTQ+ college students—like other marginalized groups—need affirming and expansive spaces to explore their identities, communicate their health needs, and access proper care. Peer counseling is a promising strategy for creating this affirming and safe space. For more information, see the additional resources linked below.
This blog was developed by Ashley Huderson, with valuable input from Kellie Anderson, Vanora Thomas, Sophia Arredondo, and Sara Wolforth.