By: Leslie Lagerstrom & Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. School staff and school-based mental health professionals work every day to support the mental health, physical, and psychological safety of all children and youth in school, particularly students who are bullied ostracized, isolated or who lack social support at school, at home, or in the community.
Transgender and other gender-diverse students, even those who demonstrate strong resiliency skills are particularly vulnerable for poor mental health outcomes due to these and other factors. Strong home-school collaboration and partnerships can bolster transgender and other gender-diverse students’ mental health, which increases their ability to perform successfully in academics and beyond; consider one family’s story.
Sam was 10 years old the first time we discovered he was exploring ways to commit suicide. Ten years old. I remember the terror that ran down my spine that day when we learned he wanted to end his life. What I thought was just another Wednesday, turned out to be the day my son’s classmates broke his spirit.
As a transgender youth, Sam suffered from daily incidents of bullying and harassment, and this day was no exception. Boarding the bus that morning, he was greeted with the usual shuffling of backpacks and kids quickly moving from one seat to another so that he could not sit next to them. The first whispers, stares and laughs of the day began on that bus as he self-consciously walked down the narrow aisle looking for a seat.
At school, the bullying ramped up…loud whispers in the halls that were meant to be heard; giggles during roll call when the teacher read the name ‘Samuel’ for the child that was once known as Samantha; body language intended to intimidate; and classmates calling Sam ‘It’ under the direction of their parents, because Sam was not conforming to their understanding of gender.
In science class Sam’s stomach filled with butterflies when he heard the teacher say, “Pick a lab partner.” He already knew how this scene would end because he had been there too many times before, standing awkwardly alone while his classmates eagerly rearranged their chairs, to partner with their pals. Sam was once again the odd man out because nobody wanted to be paired with that kid who “…used to be a girl.”
Lunch was spent alone in an alcove in the basement. This was his safe space where he ate alone each day because he was afraid to walk through the school lunchroom. By afternoon he needed to use a restroom but there were none that were safe and so he decided to hold it, just like he had done for the last 45 school days, even when this practice resulted in chronic bladder infections. The last hour of the day he had gym class, where he was taunted for standing with the boys when the teacher instructed the class to line up by gender. His day was spent trying to avoid one form of mental abuse after another, but at the age of 10 he was not yet equipped to protect himself from emotional harm. His spirit broken, he decided he had had enough.
Luckily for our family, we were able to mitigate some of the pain his classmates inflicted that day – enough that he stopped thinking about harming himself for a while. Sadly, this is what an average day looks like for many transgender and gender diverse kids.
I share Sam’s experience with you to illustrate the type of behavior that threatens the mental health of countless students every single day. Disrespectful behavior that is always at someone else’s expense, the cost of which, istoo high for any child or family to pay. In extreme cases the consequences culminate in violence, while in other incidences children choose to harm themselves or simply sink into a pit of despair and depression.
As the mom of a transgender child that has walked alongside him through the psychological mine fields created by his classmates, I know the mental toll they have taken. At home we coach him to focus on the positive, but human nature sneaks in on particularly bad days, only allowing him to remember the hurt. When you think about it, schools go to great lengths to ensure the physical well-being of students, but the same cannot be said for their mental health. I truly believe that not until our schools care equally about their students’ physical and mental well-being, will our children be safe and sound in the classroom.
Leslie Lagerstrom is the creator of the blog Transparenthood™, which chronicles her family’s experience raising a transgender child. She is a contributor to The Huffington Post and her essays can be found in two anthologies, Mamas Write and Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God. Committed to spreading awareness on the subject of transgender children, Leslie frequently shares her family’s story, speaking in front of audiences across the nation.
Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP, is a professor in the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF); he is also a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Savage’s scholarly research interests include culturally-responsive practice; social justice; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in education; and school safety and crisis prevention, preparedness, and intervention. He has conducted numerous professional development workshops on gender diversity in schools for administrators, teachers, school-based mental health professionals, and staff members locally, regionally, and nationally throughout the past five years.