Guest Blog - Schools can prevent the decline of trans and non-binary students’ mental health

 Zoe joined the Think2Speak team on work experience

Zoe joined the Think2Speak team on work experience

Zoe from a local secondary school has joined the team this week on work experience. Here is her guest blog; she choose the topic of trans youth as she's currently doing her A level Art on 'How ignorance affects trans people'.

Guest Blog - Schools can prevent the decline of trans and non-binary students’ mental health

92% of transgender youth have thought about suicide (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 30). That's worryingly high, and this becomes even more concerning when comparing it with Young Minds' estimate of 1 in 4 for young people as a whole. There's a noticeable difference here; it is likely that bullying, and other easily preventable factors, contribute to this statistic massively and consequently, we should focus on measures which prevent and tackle what is causing young trans people to be struggling as they are. Looking at other statistics, we can see that trans youth are more likely to have self-harmed too. The NHS believe that roughly 1 in 10 young people have self-harmed at some point, sky-rocketing to 4 in 5 among trans young people (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 30). Taking all this into account we can see that trans youth aren't experiencing childhood and adolescence as their cisgender (someone whose gender identity corresponds with their sex) peers do, and there are severe, sometimes fatal, consequences.

External factors are a massive influence on the differences in emotional well-being between trans and cis youth, and looking at other statistics from the 2017 Stonewall School Report (page 30), bullying plays a significant role in affecting the mental health of LGBT students. Bullying makes LGBT students more likely to self-harm, 75% compared to 58% among those who haven't been bullied (for their gender identity or their sexuality). Statistics, however, can't represent how trans (and LGB) students struggle with their mental health in all the ways they do as a direct consequence of bullying. But if as many as 4 in 5 trans young people are self-harming, it is clear that many are struggling with their mental health and may not be receiving the support they need, particularly in the classroom. Trans students often regularly face verbal and physical harassment, one sixth-form student from Wales saying "I was called names like shim, hermaphrodite, etc. I got pushed in corridors and kicked." (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 10). 57% of non-binary students also have faced bullying for being LGBT, showing not only trans students are affected (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 11). Unfortunately, this isn't as bad as it gets for some trans students and more often than not they have to learn to get used to the abuse rather than schools do anything to act on what is happening or try to prevent it. The initial downfall is with the lack of support and the lack of education about transgender people within schools, even though it is easy for schools to provide both. The same student explains that "I am willing to fight against the ignorance I've experienced"- people are willing to work to improve school life for all students, LGBT students included. Still, most schools fail to take action with over half of LGBT students saying there isn’t someone at school to talk with about being LGBT (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 25).

It’s clear that change is needed for trans students to feel safe and like they fit in at school, and that starts with education. Less than a quarter of students get taught about gender identity in school (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 23); that is evident in the lack of knowledge a large percentage of people have. Not receiving education in school about transgender people can lead to people receiving biased information from other sources, which doesn't help the negativity currently surrounding trans people. Starting talking about LGBT issues in the learning environment help these students feel more safe, welcome, and happy in school, and are less likely to experience bullying (Stonewall School Report 2017, page 24). All students have a right to learn about the world, not just their academic subjects. I have had people ask me about trans issues before, and it’s shocking that people lack such basic knowledge, and that people feel it is inappropriate to discuss trans people. It’s also shocking what questions people ask trans people regularly, disregarding all social etiquette in favour of being inappropriately nosy. A friend asked me why people who are straight transition as if transition is a way to escape being gay, she asked why trans people don't change their sexuality because she thought that logically you'd remain straight or gay as you were before. I’m not angry at her or other people for not understanding this topic, and I appreciate that people can ask me questions. My disappointment is with schools that can’t explain that gender and sexuality are separate and so much more. Disappointment that an intelligent, educated, and accepting 17-year-old needs to ask these questions. This reflects a system that is failing its students, trans and cis. Another thing that shows the effect of this is how off-the-table trans issues are to discuss. Young people believe asking appropriate questions to develop their understanding is inappropriate because schools teach them its a topic you shouldn't ask about. Questions are asked whispering, hunched over, looking visibly nervous because children and teens don’t know how to ask questions they need to, and they don’t already know the answer. Imagine being a teen who is trans, a person can't be pushed aside by the school, so when schools treat trans issues as an inappropriate topic, they're also teaching entire schools that trans people are inappropriate. Schools are intended to educate, so when students are afraid to ask questions and have very little knowledge about topics affecting them and the world, we as a society need to ask why aren't they the ones doing the educating?

But actions can be taken. Schools can and should take steps to ensure trans and non-binary students aren't subject to bullying. Bullying which affects their mental health and stops them from feeling safe.

  • The first step is to make sure all staff members are using the correct name and pronouns for the student, even if it isn't changed on registers yet. Now, a standard is set for all the students in the school to be respectful.
    • Further action can be taken by following policies which are already in place, such as government guidance which encourages schools to amend records to show the preferred gender of a student (School census 2016 to 2017: guide for schools and LAs).
  • Make sure teachers intervene with homophobic, transphobic, and biphobic bullying by providing staff with anti-HBT bullying training, and by improving pastoral care within the school to make sure trans students have an accepting environment and a supportive faculty.
  • Work with the child or teen to make sure they know where to go for help, and know they have people inside school and outside of school to help them and tackle any bullying they’re facing.
  • Take action against bullies to prove you’re on the trans student’s side. Ensure the bullies understand the consequences and effect of their actions.
  • Most importantly, introduce a curriculum that doesn't shy away from mentioning and talking about the LGBT community. One student explains, "I think that a lot of my acceptance around my sexual orientation is because of the way my A-Level teachers celebrated the achievements of LGBT people" (Stonewall School Survey 2017, page 24). This shows what impact school has on the mental health of struggling LGBT students.
    • The curriculum can work alongside anti-bullying campaigns to make sure students understand and embrace acceptance.
    • Incorporate awareness days into school life, and invite organisations to conduct workshops and talks. Creating a better environment for trans students, improving mental health, and their time within the school.

Best of all, there are many resources schools can utilise. Stonewall has resources you can find online, the book 'How to Transform Your School Into an LGBT+ Friendly Place' by Dr. Elly Barnes MBE and Dr. Anna Carlile has information for trans students, parents, and staff involved with a school. Primary schools can explain LGBT topics to children through inclusive books (I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings, Are You a Boy Or Are You a Girl? by Sarah Savage, and many more). Teachers are most important. Teachers need to be champions of trans equality; it is important that they set examples, support the children they teach and intervene when needed.

Simple steps can be taken to make sure the mental health of trans students improves and is protected, and it starts in our schools. Parents, students, teachers can act to make sure the thoughts of 92% of trans youth never turn into actions.

Lizzie Jordan

Mercury House, Willoughton Dr, Gainsborough, DN21 1YW, United Kingdom