Depression levels in the United States have risen steadily over the past five decades, and steep increases have been observed in recent years among children, adolescents, and adults under 25 years of age. Among them, youths aged 12–17 are experiencing the fastest rise in depression levels, with suicide being the third leading cause of death in this age group. Given that loneliness is a major risk factor for this condition, social isolation is one possible explanation for the increasing depression rates among youth. The mobile devices and social media sites habitually used by younger generations can weaken their interpersonal relationships and aggravate their loneliness. The most pernicious consequence of social media use, cyberbullying, can target an individual instantly and incessantly, leaving victims with no safe haven from a constant barrage of verbal and visual aggression.

The relationship between Internet use and depression is further complicated by other factors that affect young people’s well-being, including academic and peer pressure. Thus far, little is known about the independent effects of online communication on social isolation or its contribution to the escalating prevalence of depression. Nevertheless, the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on isolation and depression among school-age Americans must be considered, as the pandemic has had profound repercussions on long-term mental health and academic achievements among youth.

All the factors that can adversely affect youth’s mental health in general are greatly pronounced in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and other gender-diverse communities (LGBTQ+), including individuals with non-normative sexual orientations or identities. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, an already vulnerable group, are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Each year, nearly 2 million LGBTQ+ youth seriously consider suicide attempts, including nearly half of all transgender, nonbinary, and bisexual youth. The percentage of gay and lesbian youth who have contemplated suicide (37%) in the past year is more than double the percentage of straight youth who have done so (14%). In addition, LGBTQ+ youth are 6 times more likely to experience depression than straight youth. Overall, rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and actions are more prevalent among LGBTQ+ youth than among their straight counterparts.

Belonging to an underrepresented minority population and its concomitant stressors, such as poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and marginalization, compound mental health problems, and heighten the risk for suicidal ideation and attempts among LGBTQ+ adolescents. Other risk factors for LGBTQ+ youth include parental rejection, nonaffirming spaces in their homes and schools, and discrimination in employment and other sectors based on sexual orientation and identity. It should be noted that membership in the LGBTQ+ community is not in itself indicative of a mental health problem. Rather, the stigmatization, discrimination, marginalization, shame, and physical and emotional violence that befall its members increase the odds of mental health problems and the risk of suicide.

Cyberbullying and the LGBTQ+ Community

Bullying based on bias, stigma, or prejudice is one of the more pernicious and insidious forms of cyberbullying. It is characterized less by the bullying behaviors themselves than by the use of information and communication technologies to inflict psychological and emotional harm on particular categories of victims. This type of bullying prominently and dangerously targets the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that LGBTQ+ youth are cyberbullied significantly more often than their heterosexual or cisgendered counterparts. As noted above, these young people are often more susceptible to psychological harm than other cyberbullying victims because of their ongoing struggles with gender and sexual orientation.
Cyberbullying compounds the challenges that these young people experience in their homes, schools, and broader communities, where they often feel unsupported, misunderstood, or marginalized. LGBTQ+ victims of cyberbullying can suffer profoundly in terms of deteriorating physical and emotional health, as well as a reduced ability to function in many arenas. The ill effects of cyberbullying within this group include substance use, depression, suicidality, job loss, truancy, and academic struggles, and the increased risks for suicide in this community continue well into young adulthood.

Attempts to address LGBTQ+ cyberbullying must be nuanced and coordinated with school- and platform-based efforts to protect these youths. A necessary first step is changing the pervasive stereotypes and prejudices of the prevailing heteronormative cultural environment. In educational settings, school administrators should assess dominant attitudes toward sexual and gender diversity, which are likely to vary according to school populations and surrounding social ecologies. These assessments can facilitate the implementation of tailored school-wide training to encourage respect, sensitivity, and perspective sharing. Equally important, schools must institute zero-tolerance cyberbullying policies and sanction students who prey on peers experiencing gender-related and sexual orientation issues. Often, members of the LGBTQ+ community are labeled as “others” and are shown less humanity and empathy, so its members might change their behaviors or clothing to conceal their “otherness.” This situation becomes even more challenging for those with further stigmatized identities associated with gender, race, and socioeconomic status, given that attempts to hide their nature can only bring about persistent pain and self-loathing.

Mental Health Stigma and Literacy Among the Youth

Young people’s characteristics offer reasons to be hopeful, especially regarding their ability to overcome depression. One feature that sets them apart from older generations is that mental illness appears to be less stigmatizing among younger generations. In particular, college-aged adults experience less stigma due to mental illness and are more likely than older adults to believe that mental health care is helpful in treating depression. Reduced stigma is associated with a better understanding of mental disorders, including their signs and symptoms, as well as with greater compassion toward afflicted individuals.

Such an understanding is known as mental health literacy—a key factor that promotes the practice of seeking and complying with mental health treatment. In fact, younger people have higher levels of mental health literacy than older generations and are better able to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Compared with older adults, young adults often know more about where and how to seek help for psychiatric problems and are more likely to recognize depression as a risk factor for suicide. For these reasons, young people with depression are more willing than older individuals to reach out to mental health professionals.

Among all age groups, adults aged 70 and older are least able to identify depression as a medical condition. Comparatively fewer older adults seek depression treatment or support from counselors, phone service consultants, or psychologists and are more likely to see psychiatric treatment as harmful. In comparison, young adults aged 18–24 are more likely to perceive psychotherapy as a helpful treatment for depression. More than older people, college-aged adults also believe that seeking mental health care is a sign of strength.

Internet use may also be related to mental health literacy in younger generations, but its value in terms of seeking diagnoses and treatments remains unclear. Although younger people report being comfortable connecting to psychological help online, they risk receiving false or incomplete information about their mental health statuses or diagnoses. Furthermore, unless they are treated by mental health care providers who are reimbursed by insurance companies, their data will be inaccurate or missing from statistics on the growing number of people with mental illnesses. Nevertheless, young people have access to many mental health apps that help them easily find treatment options. Given that some young people—usually celebrities—promote such options, adolescents and young adults are generally familiar with how these apps work. Apps such as ThinkNinja, MindShift, and Talkspace can help individuals overcome depression, better manage and recover from mental illness, and reduce the risk of death by suicide.

As with young people in general, social media can offer solace and support to LGBTQ+ youth from peers who are also struggling with ostracization, insults, and degradation. Virtual communities can ease loneliness, pain, and self-doubts by gathering LGBTQ+ youth in an understanding, protective environment where they can share their sufferings and coping strategies. Online affirmation, support, and safety can console and empower this often-beleaguered subgroup of adolescents.

Social media platforms can also create safe spaces through which LGBTQ+ youth can counter heteronormative environments and enhance their mental health and well-being. Those from unwelcoming families or communities can seek solace on social media sites, such as Q Chat Space and TrevorSpace, which can cultivate a sense of LGBTQ+ identity and belonging much earlier than those in previous generations. Social media sites that welcome LGBTQ+ youth can also help them access resources and interact with supportive peers within safe contexts. For example, users can freely block or accept invitations and protect their anonymity by choosing how much of their lives are revealed.

The nature and effects of cyberbullying on young people, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, merit further study to assess the potential dangers involved, prevent future cyberattacks, and develop interventions for coping with the associated negative experiences. Notably, social media use among the youth represents a double-edged sword that demands everyone’s attention.

By: Arthur J. Lurigio – Loyola University Chicago and Kat Santucci – Adler University
Originally published by Windy City Times Media Group 23 October 2023