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New research from The Trevor Project finds that many LGBTQ+ young people feel they have a low chance of living to age 35. Here’s why. MarsBars/Getty Images
  • New research from The Trevor Project finds that a large number of LGBTQ+ youth believe their chances of living to age 35 are low.
  • LGBTQ+ youth who felt this way also reported higher rates of both stressful life events and mental health issues than their peers.
  • Health experts say parents, guardians, and adult mentors can help by creating an affirming environment where LGBTQ+ youth are free to express their identity.

In recent years, much has been documented about the state of mental health among LGBTQ+ young people. From high rates of suicidal ideation to concerns over the recent wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in states across the country, now is a particularly fraught time for the mental health and well-being of queer and trans youth in the United States.

Nonprofit The Trevor Project recently released a new survey that further contributes to our understanding of the state of the mental health of this population of young people, taking a look at the perceptions LGBTQ+ young people have of their own life expectancies and life purposes.

Data from the survey was derived from the organization’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People. The Trevor Project surveyed 28,524 13-to-24-year-old LGBTQ+ youth by way of targeted social media ads.

Standing out among the findings, 64% of those surveyed reported they were more likely than not to live to the age of 35. Those who believed their chances of living to that age were low stood at 36%.

The survey offers a window into how young people’s mental health and responses to the stresses around them can affect their self-perceptions and sense of where they fit in the world. Experts say they also offer pathways for ways in which adults, guardians, and allies in these young people’s lives can best support them.

Zooming in on those top-line findings, the survey gives perspective on how individual groups within the broader umbrella of LGBTQ+ young people perceive their possible life expectancies and life purposes.

The Trevor Project found that 59% of younger individuals (those from ages 13 to 17) believed they had a high likelihood of living to age 35, compared to 73% of their older peers (18 to 24-year-olds).

Those who identified as multisexual (or bisexual, pansexual, or queer, for example) reported a likelihood of living to 35 at 63%, which was lower compared to monosexual young people (lesbian or gay people, for example) at 68%.

There were also differences between transgender and nonbinary people (at 53%) and their gender-questioning and cisgender peers, who were at 63% and 79%, respectively.

Similarly, differences in perceived life expectancy up to 35 existed between young people of color — 59% — and their white peers — 69%.

When asked to contextualize these differences between groups, Steven Hobaica, Ph.D., research scientist at The Trevor Project, told Healthline that it’s important to note that LGBTQ+ youth who were at younger ages, were multisexual, transgender, and people of color who predicted that they would have shorter lifespans than their peers.

“This is likely due to increased levels of stress and having more negative experiences in comparison to their peers, which over time, can lead to the accumulation of minority stress and mental health concerns,” Hobaica explained. “For example, research has consistently identified that specific identities, such as transgender and nonbinary youth, bisexual youth, and those who have multiple marginalized identities, report higher rates of both stressful life events and mental health problems than their peers, which may help explain these findings.”

The survey showed that those young people who predicted they had a lower chance of living to the age of 35 also reported high rates of anxiety (82%) and depression (77%). This stands in contrast to the youth who predicted a higher chance of living to 35, at 58% and 40%, respectively.

Similarly, those who predicted lower chances of living to 35 self-reported higher rates of self-harm in the past year (77%), suicidal ideation (69%), and suicide attempts (28%).

Those numbers stood at 41%, 24%, and 6%, respectively, for those who perceived a higher chance of hitting that mid-30s marker.

The Trevor Projects reports that the rate of suicide attempts in the past year decreased in tandem with young people’s increased perceived certainty of living to 35.

When asked what stood out the most to him about the survey results, Hobaica said he was most surprised “by how strongly related both perceived life expectancy and life purpose were with a past-year suicide attempt.”

“Even more than before, I recognize the importance of including questions on these aspects of a young person’s experience when assessing for a past or future suicide attempt and encourage other researchers and health professionals to do so, as well,” Hobaica added.

Chase Anderson, MD, MS, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry, as well as the director of The Muses Program for Minoritized Youth at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), added that this survey contributes to our continuing understanding of “what it means for someone to be an LGBTQ+ youth in today’s world” — especially in the U.S. at a “time when LGBTQ+ rights are under attack.”

“We are seeing the direct effects of anti-trans laws being enacted across the country as well as continued invalidation of someone existing as their full LGBTQ+ self in America, with worsened rates of anxiety, depression, substance use, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts in LGBTQ+ youth overall compared to their heterosexual counterparts,” said Anderson, who is unaffiliated with this survey.

Anderson told Healthline that LGBTQ+ young people need spaces and interventions that are designed for them and their specific needs. In many cases, mental health interventions geared toward young people as a monolith overlook and can make invisible the community-specific concerns of LGBTQ+ youth.

These young people might face minority stressors that are completely different from what might be impacting a heterosexual or cisgender peer. This can further compound negative mental health outcomes.

“‘Treatment as usual’ is not proving effective for these youth and we need treatments tailored to their facets of identity that also weave in strengths-based ideals as well,” Anderson added. “‘How are we seeing the whole person that we are helping and letting them be their full selves?’ is a question that should be held in mind as we make interventions.”

Hobaica echoed those thoughts, explaining that the findings pull the curtain back on areas of improvement in addressing LGBTQ+ youth mental health interventions at the individual and systemic levels. He said that surveys like this one should bolster the need for LGBTQ+-affirming therapy for individuals and policy changes to address systemic failings in how we approach mental health for LGBTQ+ youth.

In one example of how community-specific approaches can have a positive impact, Anderson pointed to a 2017 study that showed policies that supported same-sex marriage led to a reduction in suicide attempts.

“Simply seeing that one’s identity was validated, even if the LGBTQ+ youth could not get married at the time, led to improved mental health,” Anderson added.

The survey also took a look at how these young people examined their purpose in life and how that ties directly back to their mental health.

“We also found that life purpose was related to perceived life expectancy, meaning that improving one’s sense of life purpose may be crucial in limiting a future suicide attempt for LGBTQ+ youth,” Hobaica said.

The Trevor Project survey showed that LGBTQ+ young people self-reported low rates of “life purpose” in areas that included “feeling enough purpose in life, finding life activities worthwhile, believing their activities are important, valuing their life activities, caring about their activities, and having many reasons to live.”

The results show that just 25% of these young people said “there was enough purpose in their life,” while 30% reported that what they do in their life “feels important.”

Additionally, 47% reported they cared about the things they do in their daily lives, while 30% said their activities in their lives were worthwhile.

The survey also showed that 54% said they valued their life activities, and 44% reported “they had a lot of reasons to live,” among other findings.

All of this concretely plays into the state of an LGBTQ+ young person’s mental health.

About 20% who said they did not have “lots of reasons to live” reported a suicide attempt in the past year, compared to just 5% of those who said they didhave “lots of reasons to live.”

About 16% of the respondents who reported they did not have “enough purpose in their life” also said they had a suicide attempt in the past year. Similar to the other findings, 5% of those who reported they had enough purpose in their daily lives also reported a suicide attempt in the past year.

Also, in the survey results, 63% of those who expressed they had “no examples of life purpose” said they also had “almost no chance” of reaching 35 years old.

“Youth-facing adults should consider methods of improving life purpose in the LGBTQ+ youth that they serve. This could be achieved through having exploratory and supportive conversations surrounding life purpose, as well as providing access to rewarding activities that align with their interests and sense of purpose,” Hobaica said. “It may also be necessary to help these youth access LGBTQ+-affirming therapy, where they could explore their life purpose in-depth and hopefully experience positive change.”

In addressing young people’s negative sense of their own purpose in life, Anderson said the most concrete thing to do is ask, “Why?”

“‘Why did you say you had low rates of life purpose?’ This question can open various avenues of discussion where the youth feels seen because these kids have more often than not already thought through and know precisely why they don’t feel as though they have a life purpose or have a low rate of life purpose,” Anderson added. “From there, those issues can be broken down to create solutions that will help the LGBTQ+ youth feel a sense of purpose and agency and will also provide ways for adults to support them.”

Anderson explained that it all goes back to examining the minority stress theory. One of the key pieces that factor into the minority stress that a person might feel is whether they have a sense of “pride or identity pride.”

“For some, it will mean being able to express one’s gender identity and gender expression openly, having friends who are accepting of one’s LGBTQ+ identity, and even feeling cared for and supported overall can lead to an increased sense of self, leading to greater feelings of pride,” Anderson said.

If, as a society, we better support LGBTQ+ young people feel validated and seen, Anderson posited that we can help these individuals feel more pride in their identities. Essentially, this can have a positive domino effect on their mental and overall health.

“Personally, as a Black, queer person who lives with a history of two suicide attempts from when I was younger, feeling pride because of support from my friends and family is one of the reasons I am alive today and why my depression is in remission,” Anderson said.

Both Hobaica and Anderson said surveys like this can offer pathways for the adults, guardians, and allies in these young people’s lives to offer more support and encouragement.

Anderson said this includes offering safe spaces where they can listen to the concerns of an LGBTQ+ young person who might be living with mental health issues.

This involves not placing blame on that young person for the discrimination they might be experiencing and removing shame from the conversation if they are in the process of examining their sexuality, gender identity, gender expression, or their own personal, internal sense of self.

Allies, guardians, and adult mentors in these young people’s lives also have to do the work of educating themselves about LGBTQ+ topics. Anderson referred to the “minority tax” these young people often have of constantly educating those around them about topics related to their identity or personhood. It can be a draining experience. This is where educating oneself about these issues can lighten the load on these young people’s shoulders.

“We encourage all youth-facing adults to consider ways to support and affirm LGBTQ+ youth, as well as assist them in developing their life purpose, in hopes of improving their mental health and perceived life expectancy. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as being accepting of their identity, educating oneself about the LGBTQ+ community, being an advocate for policy change, and providing access to needed healthcare. We also encourage youth-facing adults to have meaningful conversations with LGBTQ+ youth about their life purpose and perceived life expectancy to help discover ways to improve these aspects of their lives,” Hobaica added.

In addition to The Trevor Project itself, Anderson pointed to organizations like PFLAG, GLAAD, the CDC, and also The American Psychological Association as resources LGBTQ+ youth and the adults and allies in their lives can turn to for suggestions and support when it comes to mental health and LGBTQ+ issues in general.

In moving forward with this research, Hobaica said The Trevor Project will continue to examine these relationships between perceptions of life expectancy, life purpose, and mental health.

“Eventually, research exploring the causality between these variables would be especially helpful so that more targeted recommendations can be made to improve the perceived life expectancy and life purpose of LGBTQ+ youth,” he added.