Editor’s note: This essay is about suicide, which may be difficult for some readers.
For Michelle, a 20-year-old Fresno college student, identifying as bisexual hasn’t always been easy.
For the first three years of high school, she said she was ashamed of her sexual identity and hid it from both her friends and religious family, scared they would disown her. Instead, she tried to act “normal.”
“I didn’t realize how unhealthy my thoughts and habits were until the thought of killing myself came up,” said Michelle, who we are only referring to by her first name because she’s not ready to share her sexual identity with her family.
That’s when she knew she needed help. The problem was, she didn’t know where to go. There weren’t many school counselors and psychologists available, and Michelle couldn’t ask her parents to take her to one away from school without outing herself. She felt completely alone.
One day at school, those thoughts overwhelmed her, triggering “a mini-panic attack.”
“A friend pulled me to the side and asked me what was wrong,” she said. “We weren’t even that close, but I needed to tell someone, so I did.”
Her friend understood and accepted her for who she was, but Michelle was annoyed there wasn’t someone available who was more equipped to handle her situation.
“It’s unfortunate, and I think there needs to be more easily accessible options for people, especially for LGBTQ+ people,” she said.
While some larger cities in California have made access to mental health resources a priority — including those specifically tailored to the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities — they’re harder to find in the Central Valley and other largely rural areas.
Jennifer Cruz, LGBTQ+ program manager at the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, said she and others saw the void in their community and have since started a new resource program for the LGBTQ+ community.
“In big cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, they have a lot of resources for LGBTQ+ youth and adults,” Cruz said. “In Fresno, we have been lacking in those resources, especially since the community center closed down in 2017. It’s kind of limited.”
Since the Sanctuary LGBTQ+ Project’s inception earlier this year, the program has created support groups for youth, adults, those who are “disabled and fabulous,” LGBTQ+ Alcoholics Anonymous, and people living with HIV/AIDS. They have plans to create more support groups for the many different subgroups within the LGBTQ+ community, including a more formal transgender group with licensed clinical social workers.
And those types of resources can’t come fast enough as data revealed that 39 percent seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, with more than half of transgender and non-binary youth having seriously considered it
The Trevor Project released its first national survey on LGBTQ mental health last year, a cross-sectional survey with more than 34,000 respondents across the United States. It provides insights on the mental health challenges that LGBTQ youth face, including suicide, depression, discrimination, physical threats and exposure to conversion therapy.
Many cities across California are doing what they can to bring these alarming numbers down.
In San Francisco, all schools have social workers and curriculum that addresses LGBTQ+ issues to emphasize that everyone is welcome, which began in 1990, said Erik Martinez, manager of LGBTQ+ Support Services at San Francisco Unified School District.
“We’re aware that our LGBTQ+ patients are at a higher risk,” he said. “So, we have programming designed to bring out youth leadership and address things that lead to bullying and suicide ideation. The program goes deeper around identity formation and reflection, and how to be safe in sexual health activity and in handling stress.”
Additional support could come soon for students in grades seven through 12. Last October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to provide training materials for educators to better support LGBTQ+ students. The state department of education will develop resources for public school teachers and certified employees to ensure they are better prepared to assist LGBTQ+ students against verbal and physical harassment.
Last July, Sacramento opened a center that provides 90-day transitional housing with case management, housing assistance services, and individual and group therapy. It focuses on adults under the age of 25 who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Pixie Pearl, assistant director of housing at the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, said many times people experience homelessness because of their LGBTQ+ identity.
“They need a place to feel affirmed, to feel seen,” she said, “because how do you trust anyone if they don’t validate your identity?”
And in Fresno, with the new LGBTQ+ resource program, Cruz said if someone asks for help, somebody will be there to provide it because that’s what adults in the community and the people running the resource centers should do.
“There are people in this community that will love you, even if you can’t get that acceptance from your own family,” she said.
Cruz said it can be overwhelming for Central Valley kids who identify as LGBTQ+ because there are “layers and layers of issues,” like poverty, transgenerational domestic violence, alcohol, and drug abuse. Those are on top of social norms and constructs — such as heteronormative and gender categories — that they experience as soon as they enter the public school system.
“I feel like a lot of our kids come from a place when they get into public school, there’s just nobody looking out for them,” she said. “But what we know is that any youth, regardless of where they’re at, is going to be highly impacted by family acceptance of their LGBTQ+ status. We know that has a strong impact on their mental health moving forward.”
As suicide rates for LGBTQ+ youth are much higher than their heterosexual counterparts, Cruz said family acceptance is the number one thing that makes the difference between someone thriving in the community versus taking their own life.
Michelle, the college student that identifies as bisexual, said while she’s out to her friends, she hasn’t yet come out to her parents. Religion is a big part of her home life, and she knows the relationship with her parents will forever change once she tells them about her sexual orientation. She said she’s heard their remarks about gay people and is scared to know that’s what they could think of their own daughter.
Michelle says she plans to one day reveal her true self to her parents, but on her own time.
“I love them, and I hate that I can’t be 100% myself when I’m with them but it’s better than the alternative right now,” she said.
Writers James Reddick and Shoka Shafiee (YR Media) contributed to this report.
NOTE: If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.