US: How Incarceration Impacts LGBTQ Youth's Mental Health

Dayvon, who identifies as gay, said he ultimately realized he had to adapt for his environment for the seven months he was incarcerated. But still, it impacted his mental health. "You’re segregated from a lot of the normal things in life," he says. "It's something you’re not really used to, especially when it's your first time."

Today, he works as an organizer for Youth 4 Justice, an organization that empowers currently and formerly incarcerated youth and families. Numbers show that Dayvon's work matters.

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. The rates of incarcerated young people are no exception. According to the Justice Policy Institute, the U.S. has almost six times the number of youth incarcerated than any other comparable nation, which includes countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Of the young people behind bars, as many as 20% identify as LGBTQ.

According to a report co-authored by the Center for American Progress and Movement Advancement Project, between 12 and 20% of incarcerated youth identify as LGBT, questioning, or gender non-conforming — a disproportionate representation of the share of LGBT youth in the general population, which is between 7 and 9%. One of the surveys the report referenced did not include the "Q" in LGBTQ, which is why it is omitted here. Already at risk for mental illnesssexual assault, and violence, LGBT youth face even higher risks while incarcerated, research shows. According to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition, despite the disproportionate number of LGBT youth in the system, law enforcement officers, schools, district attorneys, judges, and juvenile defenders aren’t prepared to handle their specific needs, which may be taking a toll on their mental health.

But to understand how incarceration specifically impacts young LGBT people’s mental health, Shannan Wilber, youth policy director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said we first have to understand why LGBT young people are disproportionately locked up.

“Not that incarcerated youth generally haven’t been traumatized, but when you look at the sort of the typical pathways into law enforcement and juvenile justice for queer and transgender youth, there’s often family conflict, and rejection, and homelessness, and some kind of involvement in street economies,” Wilber tells Teen Vogue. “All of which mean they’ve already gone through a lot of isolation and trauma before they get into the system.”

LGBT young people are twice as likely to be detained for truancy, warrants, probation violations, running away, and prostitution, according to a report published in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law. According to the Williams Institute, about 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT, meaning they’re also disproportionately represented among that population, too. (Of those LGBT homeless youth, many are experiencing homelessness because of family rejection and abuse.) Read more via Teen Vogue