The Trevor Project shares these disturbing statistics about suicide risk among youth, especially those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) community, on its website (www.thetrevorproject.org):
* “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24.
* “LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
* “LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
* “LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
* “Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.”
These statistics underscore the importance of talking openly about the struggles in the LGBTQ community. During Pride Month, AIR is reinforcing its acceptance of and support for the LGBTQ community and its mission to foster open discussions about mental health in order to prevent suicide among LGBTQ youth, along with youth in all heterosexual, racial and ethnic popula-tions.
If anyone needs proof that someone can be successful despite being lesbian and having had mental health challenges, that proof is Jessica Verpeut. She earned her PhD from Rutgers University in 2010, is a researcher at Princeton University and will soon launch a new career as an Assistant Professor of Behavioral Neuroscience at Arizona State University. She will be running her own research lab, studying the behavioral neuroscience of social behavior and autism in the Department of Psychology, where she will also be the youngest faculty member, in addition to being one of relatively few women in science fields overall.
Jess hopes to see more individuals from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) commu-nity working in government, teaching and other careers. To help achieve this goal, she supports 500 Queer Scientists, which is building visibility for members of the LGBTQ community in science, technology, engineering and math careers. (Click herefor details and inspiring success stories.) “It’s new and unique. When they started, they thought, ‘If we get to 500, great,’ and they’ve exceeded that number,” Jess said. She also volunteers with Skype a Scientist, whose goal is to give students, particularly in rural areas of America, positive experiences with science. (Click here for details.)
Embarking on a Difficult yet Successful Journey
Growing up, Jess kept to herself a lot. She struggled with mental health issues, which she said is common in the LGBTQ commu-nity. “There were so many feelings that we didn’t know were normal,” she said. She grew up in the 1990s before the Internet and when the only role model for LGTBQ individuals was actress and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres. “She became an icon for people to feel they can succeed, though it is difficult,” Jess said.
Now, LGBTQ is portrayed on the Internet and in the media and there are more role models. “We’re starting to see people willing to be on our side. This was not always the case in the past,” Jess said.
Jess’s parents were born in the 1950s when the dominant focus was on white males. “They felt my life and career would be over because I’m lesbian,” she said. It took a long time for her family to accept, but they’ve come around. Her sister, who is three years younger, has always been “an incredible source of support.”
Jess was raised in a Roman Catholic household and went to Bible Camp. The culture was very non-accepting. She attended a rural high school, where people were not open to others being different. In college, she encountered “a mixture of ideas and people, which made things a lot easier.” However, she didn’t meet other lesbians that she knew of at the time, although she discovered during a college reunion that some of her classmates are lesbian.
“I graduated from Rutgers in 2010, the year Tyler Clementi died,” Jess recalled, refer-ring to the college freshman who died by suicide following an incident of cyber-bullying, consisting of a secretly recorded video of him intimately involved with another young man. “It made me realize that teachers need to be on the side of students.”
Jess had yet opened about being lesbian when she was in grad school. Gay marriage was not yet legal at that time. Today, Jess is married. Her wife Danielle’s family has always been accepting.
Forging Ahead with Coping Strategies and Resources
So, it has been quite a journey. “My process was always to get through each week at a time and my peers became the biggest support for me,” Jess said.
Having dogs since childhood also helped Jess. “There’s a powerful bond between dogs and humans,” she said.
Jess also saw a therapist when she was in high school, though she didn’t tell anyone. “It was the best thing I ever did,” she said and stressed that everyone should ask for help when struggling. “When you find a good source of support, you find a way to get through the next week. It won’t get better on your own.”
Naturally, AIR’s focus on mental health, involvement of dogs in its programs and support of the LGBTQ community appeals to Jess. She met AIR Co-Founder Tricia this past fall when she and her new puppy Hunter enrolled in Tricia’s dog training program.
Hunter is the first dog Jess had at a time when she has the flexibility to work toward the goal of having a therapy dog. “I want Hunter to be a symbol of how a rescue dog can do all that a pure bred could do. There’s a stereotype that rescues have a crazy temperament. It’s all about the training,” Jess said.
“’I’m impressed with AIR’s mission and having dogs to help with mental health, and I love how Tricia is focused on mental health in young people. It’s a challenge to tell students their lives will be totally different in five years,” Jess said.
“AIR’s impact is huge for youth, especially the LGBTQ community. AIR gives a great mental health toolkit for people to work with and provides really good resources for students,” Jess added. “For Tricia to ack-nowledge the LGBTQ community is such a big step. It’s still a new thing. We need organizations like AIR to be on the LGBTQ community’s side and show LGBTQ youth that they’re not alone.”
Jess noted that the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth is high because they feel they’re alone.
“There’s a large network, in person and especially online, that can offer support,” she said, noting that such networks mostly consist of adults. She advises youth to “keep moving forward” and assures them that life will get better.