With the rise of controversy around Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) in Tennessee, past and present research shows the benefits of gay youth attending a school with a GSA.

Previous research already shows that GLBT youth have more problems with depression, suicide, self-harm and other mental health difficulties compared to their heterosexual counterparts. One of the significant ways to decrease these mental health problems is by attending a school with a GSA. Studies have also shown that GLBT youth who attend high schools with GSAs have lower levels of suicidality.

The literature in this area is growing each year, and researchers have already found that GSAs are associated with less at-school victimization, one of the leading predictors of suicidality. While the literature is growing, there are still more questions to ask about the benefits of GSAs.

Researchers at the University of Montana conducted a study to expand the research on potential benefits of attending a high school with a Gay-Straight Alliance, specifically looking into whether a GSA was connected to less at-school victimization, problematic alcohol use, depression, and general psychological distress compared to GLBT persons who attended a school without a GSA. After examining all the prior research, the researchers found that problematic drinking and other forms of psychopathology were not examined in prior research.

The study, published in the June 2011 issue of School Psychology Quarterly, found that students who had GSAs at their schools reported more school belonging and less at-school victimization versus LGBT students who did not have GSAs. Additionally, these students who did not have GSAs at their schools had more problems with drinking and psychological distress.

“Previous research indicates that LGBT youth experience greater rates of at-school victimization than their heterosexual peers,” lead author Nicholas Heck tells Out and About Newspaper, “and this victimization is in turn related to psychological distress, suicide, and substance misuse.” Heck is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Montana.

“Our findings are important,” he adds, “because they identify an environmental factor, GSAs, that appears to help reduce these risks.”

Heck and his fellow researchers have recommended that schools should support the establishment of GSAs and integrate information about sexual orientation and gender identity into education curricula in efforts reduce the risks GLBT youth experience at school. The group also recommends establishing anti-bullying policies that affect GLBT youth, as these policies can create a better environment for students lessening the amount of bullying-related suicides that have occurred in Tennessee and many other states.

“Our government and schools need to provide more support for GLBT students,” Heck says. “This includes adopting anti-bullying policies that specifically protect GLBT students, fostering the development of school curricula that is inclusive of GLBT issues, and establishing school-based groups for GLBT students and their allies. If this were to occur, we would likely see a decline in depression, suicide, and substance misuse among LGBT youth in our nation.”

Tennessee can take a step forward by adopting these types of policies for the safely and support of GLBT youth in its schools; however, it is still unclear how many school systems would be open to these ideas.

Source: Heck, Nicholas C. with Annesa Flentje and Bryan N. Cochran. “Offsetting Risks: High School Gay-Straight Alliances and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Youth.” School Psychology Quarterly June 2011, Vol. 26 No. 2: 161-174.

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