Life

The Help LGBTQ Young People Really Need

IRL spaces run by queer people, like London's Mosaic, are helping young LGBTQ people understand themselves.
October 16, 2019, 10:29am
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Photo: Rastislav Kolesar / Alamy Stock Photo

While the annual spate of mental health awareness days are now behind us, it goes without saying that there's still plenty to be aware of.

Case in point: one group more likely to experience anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts are LGBTQ young people. According to Stonewall's School Report 2017, more than two in five young trans people have attempted to take their own life, more than four in five young trans people have self-harmed and around three in five young LGB people have self-harmed.

Thanks to the internet, LGBTQ young people have access to more information about sexuality and gender identity than ever before, but this doesn't stop them needing other forms of support.

"You might be able to find the label that applies to you and feel confident enough to tell people that's what you are. But actually, we all know that understanding your sexuality and gender identity can be an ongoing journey," says Natasha Walker, Co-Chair of LGBT+ helpline Switchboard. "Human beings are complex and there's a nuance to sexuality and gender that can't be understood just by reading about things on the internet. This is where the need for support services for vulnerable young people comes in."

Walker says this need is "glaring" because it’s so multi-faceted. "We need better access to therapists and counsellors; we need more mental health charities with specific outreach programmes targeting LGBT youth; we need preventative services," she explains. "And on the frontline we need more youth support groups and counsellors so that LGBT young people have those networks to meet each other."

One such support group is Mosaic LGBT Youth Centre in central London. "We've done research, and 98 percent of young people who've made initial inquiries about coming here show some indication of isolation or loneliness," says the centre's Director of Services, Lukasz Konieczka. "And we also know that when it's not addressed, isolation and loneliness can lead to anxiety and other mental health problems further down the line."

Mosaic welcomes up to 30 young people aged between 13 and 19 every Wednesday evening. Konieczka, who says he has another 20 young people on a waiting list because Mosaic is running at full capacity, is keen to emphasise that it's not simply a youth centre with LGBTQ members.

"This is a safe space where young people also get to meet LGBT role models, our mentors," he says. "And we teach them about things they might not otherwise learn – everything from LGBT relationships to LGBT history, arts and culture." The overall aim, he says, is to "make sure our young people are holistically educated on what it means to be an LGBT person in today’s society and a part of the LGBT community".

The benefits of this holistic approach become obvious when I speak to some Mosaic members. Amy, who's 18 and identifies as queer and agender, calls the LGBT youth centre a "life-changing" space, saying: "It's given me somewhere I can actually talk about things and don’t have to censor being queer. And because Lukasz is trained in LGBT mental health, he was able to refer me directly to a counsellor who actually understood me." Cat, a 19-year-old queer woman, says that before she started coming here three years ago she was housebound with agoraphobia. "Mosaic has really helped me because it's given me a routine," she says. "And I've made all my best friends here."

Sadly, spaces like Mosaic aren’t commonplace, even in London. Konieczka says that, 15 years ago, nearly every borough had some form of LGBT youth group; now, he can think of only four organisations which offer something similar. Unsurprisingly, austerity has hit the LGBTQ charity sector hard. "Charities applying for grants or launching fundraising campaigns are all competing for the same pots of money," says Natasha Walker of Switchboard. "That’s not their fault; it's the way the situation has developed because of such severe cuts from the government. And it's so heartbreaking, because ultimately everyone's trying to create services for the greater good."

Given the paucity of support services for LGBTQ young people, the role that schools play in normalising queer and trans identities inevitably becomes more important.

"One of the big things for us is making sure education is fully LGBT-inclusive because we know from our research that nearly half of LGBT young people still get bullied at school because of being LGBT," says Laura Russell, Stonewall's Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research. "A big part of changing things is making sure that, throughout the curriculum, LGBT people are seeing representations of themselves, and that homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is actively challenged right from primary school level."

The A to Z of Queer Women

Mosaic's Lukasz Konieczka says he thinks "schools are always going to be hit and miss" when it comes to teaching young people about queer issues, and warns that they shouldn’t become the only outlet for LGBTQ young people to express themselves. Still, new statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) guidance that comes into effect in England next year sounds like a step in the right direction.

"Because of these new regulations, LGBT inclusion will be mandatory within the SRE curriculum in secondary schools," Stonewall's Laura Russell explains. "There's not quite as much clarity at primary school level, but we know there's going to be teaching about different kinds of families, and LGBTQ families are potentially going to be part of that, alongside foster families, single-parent families and families where a grandparent is the primary carer."

Russell says that, beyond the new statutory guidance, schools should seek to reduce damaging stigma around LGBT people by weaving their achievements and experiences into children and young people's entire school life. "There are loads of ways to normalise being LGBT throughout the curriculum," she says. "You don't want a situation where LGBT people in relationships are seen as something to cover in a single lesson at secondary school and then it's been ticked off."

But ultimately it's important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Research shows that many LGBTQ people prefer to use services specially designed for them – and that services tailored to them are generally more successful than generic services.

"When I speak to other professionals I hear there's a huge level of responsibility for services to be inclusive of LGBT young people," says Mosaic's Lukasz Konieczka. "But I think that for a big shift to happen in LGBT young people's mental health we need more services that are specifically targeting them. Something that’s 'inclusive' because a counsellor has had a day's training in LGBT issues just isn't good enough."

@mrnicklevine