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Health experts say when a person’s identity (or the identity of a loved one) becomes politicized and a point of debate, it can increase stigma and stress, and be especially damaging for vulnerable young people. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Health experts say legislation like Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill (which has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents) can negatively affect the mental and physical health of young people.
  • According to experts, when a person’s identity (or the identity of a loved one) becomes politicized and a point of debate, it can be dehumanizing, increase stigma and stress, and be especially damaging for impressionable, vulnerable young people.
  • Stressed children can withdraw from normal activities, have difficulty concentrating, have poorer academic performance, and revert to behaviors present at a younger age.
  • Stressed teens are more susceptible to substance use and suicide.

Lawmakers in Florida started March by passing the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents.

If signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the bill would prevent public school educators and school staff from discussing topics related to gender identity and sexual orientation in the classroom — which could include simply discussing one’s own sexuality or gender identity or that of parents and family members.

Floridian parents could even sue school districts if they find this new policy has been violated, NPR reports.

Part of a wave of proposed discriminatory anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation popping up throughout the country, experts say this bill will be damaging and dangerous for the overall mental and physical health and well-being of queer, trans, and nonbinary students and their families in the Sunshine State.

For those following the news and discourse surrounding this bill, a common theme has emerged about how harmful this kind of legislation can be for LGBTQIA+ young people and their families.

When the simple reality of your own identity becomes politicized and a point of debate, it can be dehumanizing, increase stigma and stress, and be especially damaging for young people.

This is especially true for youth early in their elementary school years, who might not fully be able to grasp why they and their families are coming under attack.

“Discriminatory laws can worsen mental health and suicide rates among LGBTQ people. State laws permitting denial of services to same-sex couples were linked to a 46 percent increase in mental distress among LGB adults,” said Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of adolescent and young adult medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

“Same-sex marriage policies led to a reduction in suicide attempts among LGB youth. Same-sex marriage bans led to increased anxiety, mood disorders, and alcohol use.”

When asked in what ways the stress generated around the application of this legislation could manifest itself physically for a young child, Nagata told Healthline you might see it in the form of headaches, stomachaches, sleep disturbances, bedwetting, and shifts in eating.

“Stressed children can withdraw from normal activities, have difficulty concentrating, have poorer academic performance, and resort to behaviors present at a younger age,” he added. “Stressed teens are more susceptible to substance use and suicide.”

Heather Zayde, LCSW, a Brooklyn-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist, told Healthline that this kind of legislation can have an “extraordinarily detrimental effect” on the mental health of young people who are already particularly vulnerable.

Given that LGBTQIA+ young people face higher rates of suicide than their heteronormative and heterosexual peers, she said this bill specifically is really playing with fire when it comes to mental health.

It creates “erasure of these identities,” resulting in inflicting a lot of “damage to these teens and children.”

“I think it’s a bizarre conservative notion that there is a belief that talking about trans and gay identities makes people trans or gay. There’s this false belief that there is indoctrination happening, which is ridiculous. This isn’t about indoctrination. This is about inclusion, and especially vulnerable populations deserve inclusion,” Zayde said.

She added that it was important to look at one big talking point around this bill, which claims that discussions about sexual orientation or gender identity with kindergarteners through third graders aren’t age-appropriate.

“The reality is, kids come out that early, they have parents who are out, siblings who are out, aunts and uncles who are out. This is just a normal reality of life,” Zayde said.

She said that living in a place where such discriminatory rules can be imposed can drill a deep well of stress, which can accumulate in a range of adverse mental and physical health effects.

For starters, she said the implication that one can’t or should not talk about their personal gender identity or sexuality — or that of family members and loved ones — in the ideally safe space of a classroom can create internalized questions for a young person that “this identity is wrong,” or “there is something inherently wrong about me or who I am.”

“There’s so much shame when someone is silenced about [talking about their gender or sexual identities]. If I’m told I can’t talk about something, there is clearly a reason for that,” she said of how a child in school might wrestle with these newly imposed rules.

“I think there is so much beauty in being able to talk about yourself, being able to share your family, and there are so many amazing children’s books that have inclusive characters,” she continued. “By just removing that entirely, what you are saying is ‘I’m wrong, I deserve to be shamed, I deserve to be erased.’ Nobody should feel that way.”

The news of this legislation came right on the heels of a policy proposal out of Texas in February that essentially labeled the act of providing gender-affirming medical care to transgender and nonbinary teenagers an act worthy of being investigated for “child abuse.”

Jonah DeChants, PhD, a research scientist at The Trevor Project, told Healthline that policies like this bill out of Florida “are already taking a toll on the mental health of LGBTQ young people.”

“It’s crucial to note that Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill is also a ‘Don’t Say Trans’ bill — as it effectively bans classroom instruction on both sexual orientation and gender identity. This is part of a sweeping effort we’re seeing from misguided politicians across the country who are using LGBTQ youth, and transgender youth in particular, to try and score political points,” he added.

He cited a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project that found that 85 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth, along with two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth, say “recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.”

DeChants added that the cloud of social stigma kicked up by bills like this can play a disproportionate role in fostering feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and depression in a young person.

He cited that LGBTQIA+ youth face higher risks for bullying, depression, and suicide in comparison to their cisgender and heterosexual peers.

“This is not because LGBTQ youth are somehow more prone to these risks because of their identity, but rather, they are placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized by society,” he said. “Bills like ‘Don’t Say Gay/Trans’ only add to the stigma that fuels these disparities.”

From a pediatrician’s perspective, Nagata added that along with the reduced self-esteem, sense of hope, difficulties with social relationships at school, and poorer mental health outcomes, young people affected by this kind of legislation — and the stigma that stems from it — “report more social isolation, bullying, and reluctance to seek help or treatment.”

In essence, bills like this one can force a child, who might be out and visible in their LGBTQIA+ identity, might still be unsure of where they fit on the gender and sexuality spectrums, or who come from LGBTQIA+ families, into a position where they feel excised from the school community and “mainstream” culture as a whole.

What some might view as a political position that makes sense in upholding their own ideologies (and support from specific constituencies) can create a negative cascade of adverse physical and mental health outcomes for vulnerable young people.

Zayde said she keeps wrestling with the talking point that kindergarteners to third graders are “too young” to be thinking about sexuality or gender identity. She said that talking point is a myth.

“There is a huge percentage of people, of children who do come out that young. I believe 4 in 10 gay men report they knew they were gay before they turned 10 years old, some know as soon as kindergarten,” she said. “The talking point of ‘oh, these children are so young’ — that’s irrelevant. Inclusion needs to start from birth, basically.”

Zayde also pointed to the statistic that “LGBTQ students who learned about LGBTQ issues or LGBTQ people in classes in school were 23 percent less likely to attempt suicide in the past year.”

“That is such a tremendous number, so if we can really apply that to what is happening here, to take that away results in mental health problems on a grand scale,” Zayde said. “Mental health interventions in this country are definitely not as good as they could be, so we have to do everything in our power to bring these numbers down as best as we can.”

When asked what educators can do, Zayde said, in a state like Florida, bills like this make it hard for teachers who might see themselves as natural allies to young charges who pass through their classrooms.

“I think it’s challenging because effectively there’s a gag order against them, a lot of teachers have to be worried about their job safety,” she stressed. “There are ways they can communicate to kids that ‘we care about you, we care about who you are, we care about your family.’ That is an immensely important thing to have. The worry, though, is because of these bills, teachers’ hands are tied.”

She added that “teachers play a tremendous role in the lives of children,” especially those who are part of the greater LGBTQIA+ community.

“If you talk to a group of LGBTQ children, they’ll say often the allies they’ve had in their life, the adults that made them feel accepted and included, were educators and school counselors,” Zayde explained. “Some people come out in school way before they come out to their family, so when we take this away from them, we take away huge support systems and structures.”

When asked what resources exist to take action in opposition of this harmful bill specifically, DeChants pointed to Equality Florida, the largest civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida’s LGBTQ community.

More broadly, DeChants advised there are a number of ways people can make a difference.

“Regardless of where we live, it is important for us to continue to remind LGBTQ young people who might feel scared, or stressed — or a variety of other emotions in response to these anti-LGBTQ laws being debated — that they are not alone,” he said.

“There are people who will love and support them, no matter what anti-LGBTQ politicians say. The Trevor Project’s trained counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. Youth can also build community and connection with one another through the world’s largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth, TrevorSpace.”

Nagata also pointed to The Trevor Project’s suicide prevention lifeline and said that young people can try to seek out their pediatrician or “seek professional help from a mental health provider.”

“Pediatricians and mental health providers should foster a welcoming environment in their practices so that LGBTQ youth are not discouraged from seeking care,” he added.

Of course, some young people might not have access to a healthcare professional or adult who is an ally or who affirms their LGBTQIA+ identities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in youth mental illness,” Nagata said. “Additional stressors such as discriminatory legislation can add to the youth mental health crisis for some of the most vulnerable youth.”

Zayde said it’s also crucial to affirm to your child that “they don’t deserve to be erased” and that these laws are actually incongruent with the “trajectory of this country.”

She also said one area that has been helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic has been online meetings and support groups that are easy to connect with if one has internet access.

“Another thing that is important is that we all actively speak out against these absurd and harmful laws. Reach out to your representatives, talk to people in your community, as much as you can, share your feelings about it,” Zayde said of actions one can take.

“There are some people who don’t know what this is like just because they haven’t had the experience of being a queer child, or a parent of a queer child. If we can learn more about it by sharing, people can move toward having more compassion around it,” she said.