The pandemic exacted a heavy toll on the mental health of LGBTQ youths across Massachusetts as they faced housing insecurity and other challenges, according to a new report from the state.
Research about the pandemic’s impact comes from the annual report of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth, an independent state agency. The report, released Tuesday, includes data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health demonstrating the stark impact the pandemic has had on LGBTQ people.
Sixty-eight percent of nonbinary respondents and 62 percent of transgender respondents said that they experienced more than 15 days of poor mental health over the course of the last year, according to a DPH survey.
Specifically among young people, 83 percent of nonbinary youth reported “feeling sad or hopeless every day for more than two weeks,” followed by 78 percent of transgender respondents. Eighty-four percent of youth who identified as queer, 68 percent of bisexual youth, and 66 percent of gay or lesbian youth reported similar feelings.
Forty-six percent of cisgender respondents said they felt sad or hopeless for more than two weeks, and 29 percent of heterosexual respondents reported similarly.
Jordan Meehan, the Commission’s legislative and policy manager, said that one of the takeaways he has from the report is that the pandemic’s “holistic impact” on the LGBTQ community “has been so much worse . . . than anticipated.” He noted that the report serves as a reminder that the pandemic is still not truly over.
“There’s no flipping a switch to make everything go back to normal, and even normal wasn’t great, pre-pandemic. So I think it’s so important for this to come out during Pride Month as we’re in reopening, getting back to some semblance of normal, but just knowing that things are still very much broken,” he said.
The Commission compiled research from various studies about LGBTQ people in Massachusetts and the greater United States to begin to discern the health, social, and economic circumstances of this group during the pandemic, but little data still exists about the “specific impact of COVID-19 on LGBTQ adults and youth,” according to the report.
The state agency presented the report at a virtual ceremony Tuesday morning where Senator Edward Markey, US Representative Ayanna Pressley, and state Representative Natalie Higgins appeared as guest speakers.
This year’s report also offers recommendations geared toward several goals, including increasing inclusion, ending homelessness, advancing justice, improving health, and ending sexual victimization.
Meehan said the Commission examines all aspects of life for LGBTQ youth in order to put forward certain recommendations.
“From our perspective, the Commission is the only agency of its kind in America. . . . We feel a very strong moral imperative to be raising as many alarm bells as we can — not only on health care aspects but also other aspects of lived experiences that we focus so hard on,” he said.
In addition to increased mental health problems, some LGBTQ youth also experienced challenges in maintaining their physical health over the pandemic year, according to the report. The report noted that LGBTQ people are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions that can lead to more severe cases of COVID-19.
“While more data is needed, it is likely that COVID has exacerbated pre-existing health disparities, identity-based discrimination, and inequitable access to care,” the report stated.
Pandemic-driven lockdowns also disproportionately challenged LGBTQ youth, a demographic who the report notes faced high levels of housing insecurity prior to the pandemic. The shuttering of shelters and college campuses at the beginning of the pandemic forced many young people into homelessness or pushed others to move back into unsafe home environments where they would be forced to hide their identity, the report said.
Sean Cahill, a former member of the Commission and now the head of health policy research for the Fenway Institute, which provides programming for LGBTQ individuals and researches issues impacting their health, said that data from the DPH “confirm[s] a lot of the concerns” advocates had regarding the LGBTQ community during the pandemic.
Cahill said that he supported how the report prioritized “family rejection” as a “driver of disparities” among LGBTQ youth.
“If parents are supportive of their youth, and support them in their identity, the research shows that those youth will have better outcomes, better school performance outcomes, better health and well-being outcomes,” he said.
In addition to the pandemic-specific research, the report’s recommendations touched upon several areas the Commission proposes should be addressed, including steps to combat inequalities faced by LGBTQ youth in the juvenile system.
According to the report, LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to enter the juvenile system, compared to non-LGBTQ youth. Roughly 85 percent of LGBTQ youth in the system are young people of color.
Meehan noted that one of the most pressing recommendations is a call to “increase collection of data on sexual orientation and gender identity to identify and reduce disparities throughout the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
“When we see these disparities in how we collect and report data, if we do it all, we’re not getting a full picture throughout state government, so I think data collection — making it more robust, more uniform, more intentional — will go a long way towards not only showing what inequities still remain but how we can fix them,” he said.
“That’s what I hope this report really shines a light on — just specifically where there are inequities that remain, how stark they are, how much work that needs to be done,” Meehan added.