Invisible: LGBTQ Homeless Youth and Mental Health

By Aric Markl

I was diagnosed with a type of mood disorder known as cyclothymia three years ago and since middle school I’ve been treated for ADHD. I had struggled in school for most of my life, but after developing cyclothymia at the age of 20 things became a lot more difficult. I began finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning, I would have mood swings going from hypomanic (feeling like I could do everything, taking on extra work and responsibilities) to hypodepressive (waking up in the morning and spending an hour and a half convincing myself that I could get out of bed that day). My grades suffered, I started losing friends, and this only fed the cycle. By the time the end of the semester had rolled around, I had missed about 25% of all of my classes and it was only thanks to two very forgiving professors that I even passed.

Now for context, according to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), cyclothymia, “is a mild form of bipolar disorder (manic depressive illness), in which a person has mood swings over a period of years that go from mild depression to emotional highs.”1 and ADHD, most pertinent in my case, means I’m far more likely than most people to take “...hasty actions that occur in the moment without first thinking about them and that may have high potential for harm…”.2 The emotional highs of cyclothymia and the impulsivity of ADHD are synergistic and only exaggerate these symptoms.

So that was my experience.

And though these disorders almost never go away, I had the good fortune of being a cisgender gay white boy born into an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of Delaware. I struggled and went through my own little hell in the beginning, but I had a strong support network, a therapist, and a psychiatrist all working to help me manage my disorders and get me back on track.

Now imagine if I had been in high school, kicked out of my home, and left with no one to support me, that is the fate of nearly 200,000 LGBTQ children as of 2013.

The National Coalition for the Homeless states that 20% of homeless youth in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ3 and recently America’s Youngest Outcasts, using data from the 2013 U.S. Census, found that there were 2.5 million homeless children as of that year. Their report then goes on to say that up to 40% among homeless school-age children have mental health problems requiring clinical evaluation.4 By high school, about 1 million of the homeless youth in America will have developed a mental disorder, 200,000 of which will be LGBTQ.

However, these percentages do not line up neatly, this is the result of “intersectionality”. This means that the more minority groups you’re in, the more likely you are to face discrimination and prejudice. A homeless cisgender, white, gay boy is less likely to experience prejudice than a homeless, transgender, black, lesbian girl. But regardless of how you identify, being homeless and a member of the LGBTQ community greatly increases your chances of experiencing mental health issues.5

On June 16th, 2010 the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) released a plan outlining how the council would address the issue of homelessness in the United States in the coming years6 which included a provision specifically directing USICH to address the issue of homeless LGBTQ youth.7 This was an important step forward in the fight to fix a huge gap in the care of queer kids throughout our country, but this is far from over.

Although LGBTQ issues are now very present in mainstream discussion., homelessness is still an invisible issue in this country and the subject of mental health is only very recently becoming something people are willing to recognize. Unfortunately, the intersection between these three groups is, despite the many organizations working to address it, nearly nonexistent in the general public consciousness.

We live in a country where change comes, nearly exclusively, through the will of the majority. We cannot expect an end to the plight of these children until their struggle is made visible to everyone.