Advocacy by student-led Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) clubs could help reduce middle- and high school-wide disparities in depressive symptoms between LGBTQ+ and heterosexual students, according to a new study whose lead author is Lynch School of Education and Human Development Professor V. Paul Poteat.

The findings, recently published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, suggest that middle schools and high schools with GSAs—also known as Gay-Straight Alliances—that engage in additional advocacy to highlight issues affecting LGBTQ+ students can promote well-being among LGBTQ+ youth across the wider school population.

V. Paul Poteat

V. Paul Poteat

“Discrimination is a major contributor to depression among LGBTQ+ youth,” said Poteat, a professor in the Counseling, Development & Educational Psychology department.

“GSAs provide an affirming space in schools for LGBTQ+ youth to access support and work collectively against discrimination that they face. Our results indicate that GSA-led advocacy efforts to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ students’ experiences and to address discrimination have the potential to lessen disparities in depression between LGBTQ+ students and heterosexual students in the general school population.”

GSAs are student-led school clubs that aim to provide a space to socialize and access social-emotional support from peers, and advocate for students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and with other sexual orientation and gender identities. These organizations now exist in an estimated 44 percent of United States middle schools and high schools, Poteat said. GSA advocacy activities frequently seek to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues and counteract bullying and discrimination within the school.

Gender-Sexuality Alliance-led advocacy efforts to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ middle and high school students’ experiences and address discrimination “have the potential to lessen disparities in depression between LGBTQ+ students and heterosexual students.”

—Paul Poteat, professor and the study’s lead author

The study included more than 1,000 students from 23 Massachusetts schools who attended schools with GSAs, but who were not GSA members—89 percent of whom identified as heterosexual and 11 percent as LGBTQ+. Participants reported their depressive symptoms at the beginning and the end of the school year, and separately, GSA members tracked their group’s advocacy efforts over the school year. The researchers found that LGBTQ+ youth reported higher depressive symptoms than heterosexual students at the start of the school year; however, depression disparities between LGBTQ+ students and heterosexual students were smaller at the end of the school year for students in schools whose GSAs had engaged in more advocacy over the year.

These effects tied to GSA advocacy were still present even after accounting for students’ initial depressive symptoms and several other known contributors to youth mental health, according to the researchers.

Hirokazu Yoshikawa (New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development) and Jerel P. Calzo (San Diego State University) served as co-investigators for the study. Additional contributors from NYU included Sarah B. Rosenbach, S. Henry Sherwood, and Emily K. Finch.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health.

Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | March 2023