LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately impacted by mental health challenges in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health’s (OCMH) latest annual report.
The report highlights youth mental health challenges from school and family environments, as well as the impact cultural identity and economic barriers may add to their lived experiences.
These issues are particularly prevalent among LGBTQ+ youth. Nearly half of Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ youth have “seriously considered” suicide, a rate 2.5 times higher than youth as a whole, according to the report.
With a 10% increase over the past ten years, 34% of Wisconsin students reported they feel “sad or hopeless every day.”
Wisconsin’s LGBTQ+ youth face growing legal barriers to inclusion. State lawmakers have introduced bills that would prevent teachers from acknowledging a student’s desired pronouns in class and require youth to participate in sports teams that align with their sex assigned at birth, according to Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton).
“One of the things that’s most frustrating is that Republicans like to talk big game about caring about youth mental health when they’re consistently introducing bills that further marginalize and traumatize some of the most at-risk youth in Wisconsin,” Snodgrass said in an interview. “That includes the LGBTQ+ community.”
According to Snodgrass, the Wisconsin LGBTQ+ caucus is creating legislation to alleviate these obstacles. Last session, they introduced their Equality Agenda, a bill package intended to make life safer, more accepting and overall easier for LGBTQ+ individuals. The caucus plans to reintroduce similar bills during Pride Month in June, Snodgrass said.
One issue the Equality Agenda addresses is conversion therapy, the widely discredited practice of attempting to change a person’s gender or sexual orientation. Due to the traumatizing nature of the practice against LGBTQ+ youth, 20 states have chosen to ban it outright.
The practice of conversion therapy continues to be legal in Wisconsin, if state funds are not used in cases involving minors.
“I introduced a bill to ban conversion therapy from a legislative perspective that didn’t even get a hearing,” Snodgrass said.
Outside of legislative progress, the OCMH report emphasized the importance of family and community connections to combat mental health issues. For LGBTQ+ youth, having one accepting adult in their lives can make them 40% less likely to attempt suicide, the report noted.
Still, few teenagers are willing to talk to their parents about issues regarding their mental health. Less than a quarter of students who reported feeling angry, anxious, empty, sad or hopeless said they would talk to an adult family member about these feelings, according to the report.
Access to mental health professionals is an important source of support for youth beyond their families. Currently, there is one community-based mental health professional for every 440 kids in Wisconsin. The recommended ratio is 250:1.
Ava Pelligrino, a student at Mukwonago High School, works as the Young Adult Lived Experience Partner at the OCMH. At the OCMH briefing in January, she said the increased demand for mental health services occurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My generation is said to have been the ‘now’ generation,” Pelligrino said. “We want things now. We don’t want to wait a month or two to see a therapist or to get medications from a prescriber.”
While these figures are increasing due to pandemic funds, 49% of youth diagnosed with mental conditions still have not received treatment.
Gov. Tony Evers sought to combat the issue of youth mental health through this support in his 2023-25 budget proposal. He recommended an allocation of more than $270 million in general purpose revenue for various mental health initiatives in K-12 schools — an expansion of the current $22 million in annual school mental health funding, according to the proposal.
Evers declared 2023 “The Year of Mental Health” during his State of the State address in January.
“The state of mental health in Wisconsin is a quiet, burgeoning crisis that I believe will have catastrophic consequences for generations if we don’t treat it with the urgency it requires,” Evers said during his speech.
Snodgrass agrees, and she hopes lawmakers will pay special attention to the unique mental health concerns LGBTQ+ youth face.
“It can feel really lonely to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community in Wisconsin, especially when we look at what’s happening nationwide,” said Snodgrass. “I think it’s really important to remind them that they have six representatives in the Senate and the Assembly in Wisconsin. We’re here and we’ve got their backs.”