COVID-19 has had an alarming impact on the mental health of college students. This has been especially true for LGBTQ+ students, with the last three years seeing a concerning rise in thoughts of suicide among LGBTQ+ youth. According to a report released earlier this summer by the Trevor Project, 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth respondents have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. The increase, the Trevor Project suggests, stems from not only from the negative impact of COVID-19, but other risk factors like barriers to mental health care and a wave of new state policies affecting LGBTQ+ rights. During July 2022 alone, ten anti-gay laws went into effect, all of them relating to education.
Even before recent events, LGBTQ+ students tended to be targets of harassment, and there is strong evidence that members of the LGBTQ+ community are at a higher risk for experiencing mental health issues – especially depression and anxiety disorders. Amidst these ongoing and widening challenges, college and university leaders have a responsibility to ensure they are supporting and fostering greater inclusion for LGBTQ+ students.
Demonstrate Commitment. A clearly articulated and well-publicized commitment to inclusion may have a dramatic impact within schools and universities. With research showing that students who find their school to be LGBTQ-affirming report lower rates of attempting suicide, it’s critical that students know their college or university is not only accepting of them but actively supportive. Institutions should be explicit in articulating their inclusivity goals to their communities, providing specifics about how they plan to achieve their objectives as well as regular updates on any progress they make to show their students they are actively working on better inclusivity.
For instance, the University of Louisville has been recognized as one of the best institutions for LGBTQ+ students by being named a 2022 Best of the Best LGBTQ-Friendly Campus by Campus Pride. In 2007, it became the first school in Kentucky to add gender identity to its non-discrimination policy. Since then, it has demonstrated its commitment to this policy by continuously expanding its support for LGBTQ+ students, from opening and maintaining a dedicated LGBTQ+ center to establishing gender-neutral restrooms.
Online institutions can demonstrate their commitment by ensuring people are recognized for who they are. This can mean rethinking information systems to ensure that appropriate names and pronouns are used for identification and on diplomas. Even online institutions sometimes hold in-person events. At Capella University (Capella) residencies, which are held in-person for some programs, pins listing pronouns are available. At office locations, the university provides gender neutral restrooms. Finally, all institutions can eliminate gendered language, such as, “freshman” The visibility created by these efforts will be noticed by LGBTQ+ students and their allies – sending a strong signal of support and safety.
Train Faculty and Staff. Institutions can make their inclusivity goals a reality by providing training to those who interact with students every day and know them best. Training can help faculty identify pre-existing assumptions and help them modify class discussions and course materials accordingly. Higher education leaders should clearly articulate their expectations for faculty and staff and then provide the necessary training and resources. It’s also important to recognize the leadership of LGBTQ+ faculty members and staff through employee resource groups, or ERGs.
As an online institution primarily serving adult students, ensuring our faculty and staff are well-versed in the needs and challenges of students from diverse backgrounds has long been a critical component of our work. Because our online institution must rely on technology to create meaningful relationships, we are continuously re-evaluating and improving our approach to better connect with our students. Curriculum and co-curricular materials should be reviewed with an eye toward diversity, inclusivity, and equity so that all people see themselves represented.
For example, at Capella, the faculty have developed a tool, on which faculty and instructional design staff are trained, to guide curriculum review to ensure that unconscious bias can be identified and removed from courses and materials. Not only is it the right thing academically, but removal of bias also contributes to a sense of psychological safety for LGBTQ+ learners and all students from groups facing discrimination and oppression.
Double Down on Mental Health Services. With the challenges LGBTQ+ individuals face, institutions must make sure that LGBTQ+ students not only have easy access to mental health services but that they feel safe and supported when seeking them out. For traditional brick-and-mortar schools, those services could include dedicated on-campus staff that specialize in the LGBTQ+ community. For online institutions, consider incorporating programs such as virtual LGBTQ+ groups as well as virtual mental health services.
Equally important is to set a tone that it's okay to need support. Faculty across the helping professions routinely offer webinars for students, faculty, and staff about the importance and need for support. And when mental health support is needed, Capella has assistance available 24/7 for students, faculty, and staff.
Foster Community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, LGBTQ+ youth who live in a community that is accepting of them report significantly lower rates of attempted suicide than those who do not. College leaders should help create that sort of community for students of all backgrounds. Brick-and-mortar institutions can organize events that raise awareness, foster empathy, and bring people together, while online schools could do the same by utilizing internal social networks where students in the LGBTQ+ community can connect and use the platform to educate others. It’s also important to offer dedicated safe physical or virtual spaces for LGBTQ+ students where they can find support, connection, and kinship. Institutions can encourage faculty, staff, and leaders to create safe spaces as allies or as out members of the LGBTQ+ community. LBGTQ+ leaders, faculty, and staff who are able to be visibly out within their institution provide a role model for students to see successful LGBTQ+ professionals. As a gay man, I work to support this type of visible LGBTQ+ leadership at Capella and nationally.
The last few years have been difficult for all college students, but LGBTQ+ students have found their education to be especially disrupted by the pandemic. Institutions and their leaders have a duty to work to provide their LGBTQ+ students with the community, resources, and sense of security to ensure they feel safe and supported as they continue their education.
Dr. Richard (Dick) Senese is president of Capella University.