Gender-Sexuality Alliance Clubs Can Promote Youth Empowerment and Mental Health

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Many sexual and gender minority (SGM) youth face discrimination, which increases their risk of depression and anxiety—even into adulthood. School-based clubs called Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs, also known as gay-straight alliances) have emerged to gather youth of all sexual orientations and gender identities to address SGM concerns. A recent study showed that GSAs can promote the mental health and self-empowerment of youth.

The study tested whether increased GSA activity and involvement in GSAs could empower youth and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Study participants were 580 students, ages 10 to 20 years, in 38 GSAs in Massachusetts. Of these, 366 participants, plus 58 adult advisors, completed surveys at the beginning and end of the school year. The student surveys asked about demographics, GSA engagement level, perceived peer validation, self-efficacy to promote social justice, sense of hope, and symptoms of depression or anxiety. Advisors reported how well-equipped they felt to address issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as the number of times their GSAs met and discussed mental health–related issues.

GSA members who were more involved in the clubs over a school year were more likely to feel greater acceptance from peers and have increased hope and ability to encourage social justice. In addition, students who were more engaged in GSAs were less likely to show signs of depression or anxiety. Furthermore, members of GSAs that held more meetings and discussions on mental health had fewer concerns about mental health. Researchers also found no significant differences between the responses from SGM and heterosexual youth.

By fostering youth self-empowerment, active GSA engagement can help to counteract the elevated risk of mental health challenges in marginalized groups. The study results suggest that this potential benefit in reducing depressive and anxiety symptoms may be drawn from an increase in hope that accompanied greater engagement in a GSA. Further research focusing on SGM youth in other locations and age groups may help provide greater insight on the impact of GSA involvement.

Citation:
Poteat, V. P., Calzo, J. P., Yoshikawa, H., Lipkin, A., Ceccolini, C. J., Rosenbach, S. B., O’Brien, M. D., Marx, R. A., Murchison, G. R., & Burson, E. (2019). Greater engagement in Gender‐Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) and GSA characteristics predict youth empowerment and reduced mental health concerns. Child Development, 1–20. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13345