Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.
For Lani Thomas, it was a jarring, heart-wrenching introduction to sexuality outside of society’s rigid norms.
In the early hours of June 12, 2016, a gunman took the lives of 49 victims and injured more than 50 at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. It would become one of the deadliest mass shootings in United States history — a targeted attack against the gay community during the club’s Latin Night.
Lani was 12 years old and, in the days to follow, sought an answer to why the shooting was so painful for them.
A month later, Lani found out they were queer. And over the next couple of years, they continued questioning their identity, sexuality and gender. Lani came out as queer, non-binary last year.
“I always felt slightly isolated in my life,” said Lani. So revealing the layers of their identity following the Pulse shooting “felt like a relief of a question that was hanging there.”
“I’m not isolated anymore,” Lani thought. “My feeling of loneliness was cured by being a part of the queer community.”
Now in eleventh grade, Lani has served as the president of Florida Virtual School’s Gay-Straight Alliance for the past year or so. Yet, their natural empathy and willingness to have tough conversations has led them to assume a role no youth should — being the peer who others lean on in urgent, intense moments when they are contemplating self-harm.
In the U.S., suicide is the second-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That statistic is especially resonant during National Suicide Prevention Week, which began Sunday. And, as other numbers show, the situation is particularly alarming for LGBTQ youth.
In the 2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health conducted by The Trevor Project, 40 percent of the over 40,000 LGBTQ youth respondents aged 13 to 24 reported seriously considering attempting suicide in the past year. Among transgender and non-binary youth, the percentage rose to more than half.
Nearly half of LGBTQ youth reported having engaged in self-harm in the past year, according to the survey. The results for transgender and non-binary youth were particularly stark: Over the last year, 60 percent said they engaged in self-harm and more than 1 in 5 reported having attempted suicide.
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Many young people lean on each other for support, which can provide comfort, solace, belonging. But often the burden of holding a peer’s pain is too heavy to shoulder.
There’s a certain guilt or shame that comes when people who are confided in — whether young or old — are unable to help peers contemplating self-harm, said Carolyn Redmond, a licensed clinical social worker and the behavioral health manager at Metro Inclusive Health in St. Petersburg.
It’s especially difficult when the person being looked to for help is suffering through their own battles, said Redmond, who works to help youth set boundaries against taking on too much.
Lani, 16, has post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of trauma from carrying the burden of mental illness and suicide second-hand, they said. It’s not just those directly suffering who add to the suicide statistics, Lani noted. Healthy peers who find themselves assisting in dire situations, as Lani has, often feel overwhelmed.
In an online support group for LGBTQ youth that Lani was once a part of, every day there was an intense situation. At times, peers would say “goodbye” and others online would try to console them whether it took 30 minutes or six hours.
“It consumed my life,” said Lani, who was afraid of missing an opportunity to help someone.
“If there’s no support anywhere else, what are you supposed to do? It’s the only resort.”
It wore Lani down. Deteriorated their health. They have since decided to remove themself from positions where they found themself bearing the immense burden of talking peers down from self-harm.
Lani’s sense of relief upon coming out is a feeling they say diverges from the experience of many youth who are questioning their sexuality.
Families, places of worship, and school are three places youth often go to seek a sense of belonging and solace, said De Palazzo, the statewide Safe Schools Director for Equality Florida. But for many LGBTQ youth it can be hard to find places where they feel connected and valued, forcing many to live dual and triple lives, Palazzo said.
LGBTQ students attempt suicide at a rate four times higher than non-LGBTQ youth, Palazzo said. And for LGBTQ youth of color the challenges multiply. Students of color don’t go to Gay-Straight Alliances because they don’t see themselves there, according to Palazzo, noting that advisors are often white. And youth of color do not use crisis hotlines at the same rates as their peers.
People of color who also identify as LGBTQ attempt suicide at particularly high rates, according to SAVE, Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.
It’s not identifying as LGBTQ that’s causing these mental health disparities, said Jackie Jackson-Dean, a school psychologist and LGBTQ Liaison in Pasco County. The problem is people around youth who may be telling them that being gay is not normal, fueling feelings of discrimination, isolation and rejection, Jackson-Dean said.
Addressing these disparities can be simple, she said. “Just having one supportive and affirming adult in their life drastically reduces kids’ thoughts and attempts when it comes to suicide.”
“You can be that one person.”
As more adults offer support to youth, the burden for youth like Lani dwindles.
Simply seeing that their school has a Gay-Straight Alliance or seeing faculty with stickers marking safe spaces makes youth feel more safe, said Palazzo.
Yet mistakes can be traumatizing. This includes teachers accidentally using transgender students’ birth names as opposed to the name they identify as, often referred to as dead-naming.
With all that’s happening in the world, kids “don’t need the additional pain of being dead-named and misgendered a hundred times a day,” Lani said.
As micro-aggressions pile on top of the pain of watching marginalized communities suffer — and sometimes be killed — in the news, Lani said it’s not surprising LGBTQ and other minority youth have higher suicide rates.
Lani says schools need to hold faculty accountable for using the correct names and genders for their students as well as provide resources such as Gay-Straight Alliances and suicide hotline information “to make sure as many of us survive as possible.”
This story was funded in part through a grant from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. Donors are not involved in the reporting or editing process.