Newsletter: Youth Health and Wellness

Building Community at Camp: Bringing High School Youth Together for Change

Justine Evyn Saliski (she/her), Project Manager & Trainer

In an effort to continue to provide safe spaces for youth where acceptance and inclusion are at the forefront of our work, Garden State Equality is excited to bring Changemakers: A Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Youth Leadership Initiative to high school-age youth across the state.

At Changemakers, we will spend a week at Fairview Lake, where our student delegates will participate in a series of workshops focused on, but not limited to, racism, gender identity and sexual orientation, power and privilege, body positivity and self love, religion/faith, acceptance, and inclusion. Through these workshops, students will create, facilitate, and experience collaborative, student-led activities that will not only be fun, but will also foster deep connections for all of our participants from different parts of the state.

In addition to participating in leadership work, students will have the chance to participate in a plethora of fun camp activities like rock climbing, canoeing, archery, swimming, talent show night, and so much more. The key takeaway that we will be focusing the week around is creating action plans that they will be able to bring back to their schools and communities that will encourage them to be leaders in their spaces and bring positive and meaningful change to their communities.

Part of the inspiration for bringing a program like this to our youth was so that we could provide a safe haven where they are with individuals who look like them, experience the same adversities they do, and participate in activities that celebrate who they are. Oftentimes at school, students who are deemed to be “different” struggle with bullying and feeling like an outsider. Navigating school can be a challenging time for all youth, but for LGBTQ+ youth, those challenges are amplified. According to The Human Rights Campaign, 26 percent of LGBTQ+ youth say that their biggest problems are not being accepted by their family, trouble at school/bullying, and a fear to be out/open. 22 percent of non-LGBTQ+ youth report that their biggest struggles are troubles with class, exams, and grades. While those statistics are close in number, the vast differences show that the non-LGBTQ+ student experiences are more typical than those who are within the community.

For many kids, camp is an oasis. Camp is a space where memories are made, traditions are created, and lifelong relationships are cultivated. Immersing youth not only in nature, but also in an environment that allows them to be in a space where they can be with like-minded peers, is great for their mental health and wellbeing. This environment promotes the growth of self-confidence and resilience, offers the opportunity to meet new people with shared interests and make new friends while creating meaningful experiences that are designed to be brought home and shared with others. 

A youth leadership initiative like this allows for our youth to take part in leadership-based workshops, giving them space to step into their unique voice and find their personal power, use a social justice framework to build and uplift the next generation of changemakers, and give individuals the opportunity to learn about themselves, face their fears, try new things, push their boundaries, and accept themselves for exactly who they are. We are currently facing a 24-hour news cycle that is telling LGBTQ+ individuals every single day that they are less-than, and through Changemakers, we will continue to remind our youth that they are not less than anyone else, but that they are worthy of everything.

If you are interested in learning more about Changemakers, or think that you know a high school age student who would be interested in the program, please reach out to Justine Evyn Saliski, Camp Director, at [email protected]

Health Equity & Inclusive Paid Leave

Aleyah Lopez (she/her), Project Manager & Trainer

This month I was a panelist, along with Garden State Equality board member Chris Budin, at the Health Equity and Inclusive Paid Leave: Access for the LGBTQIA Community convening. The convening was spearheaded by Nat Moghue, the Paid Leave Organizer of NJ Citizen Action. An array of topics were covered, such as inclusive family definition, family leave insurance, and the NJ Law Against Discrimination. As a panelist, I talked about the importance of inclusive policy design and inclusive family definitions.

Inclusive policy design is extremely important in improving health equity because when a policy is designed with only a specific subset of people in mind, it causes disparities in access and resources. For example, if a company or organization is designing a health equity policy and only considering their heterosexual employees or their cisgender employees, then their LGBTQ+ employees are being left out of the conversation and may not have the appropriate care or access to the resources they need.

Creating policies that have inclusive family definitions, steer away from the traditional nuclear family definition, and are geared toward chosen families or inclusive families are very important. The sad reality is that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have fallen out with their family of origin. As a result, employers should be cognizant of this fact when creating inclusive paid leave policies. When inclusivity is not expressly and intentionally written into policy, it falls by the wayside. LGBTQ+ inclusive policy doesn’t just benefit LGBTQ= people, it provides more protection for all marginalized groups.

If you are an employer who wants to best support your LGBTQ+ employees, undertake a needs assessment for your company or organization and see what your LGBTQ+ employees want and need. You can also contact Garden State Equality’s team of trainers to set up trainings, workshops, and/or professional development opportunities.

Importance of ACEs Education

Samantha Hanson, MA, NCSP (she/her), Project Manager & Trainer

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) affect 61 percent of adults across the United States, yet they are very rarely discussed. ACEs are defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). Examples include experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community, and having a family member attempt or die by suicide Also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as growing up in a household with substance use problems, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison.

Garden State Equality is working in our most at-risk cities across New Jersey to bring awareness, education, and prevention around ACEs to families by using a community-driven approach. We are uplifting changemakers in these communities and giving them the knowledge and tools to fight ACEs in the cities they live in. One way we are doing this is by utilizing a  “Community Cafe” model to bring families together over a meal to provide education, meaningful conversations, bonding, and actionable resources. Community Cafes happen the third Thursday of every month with our partners at Urban Promise in Camden, NJ. Sign up for Garden State Equality’s mailing list to stay informed about upcoming Community Cafes.

LGBTQ+ Families Matter

D Belinfanti (she/they), Project Manager & Trainer

On July 29, 2022, Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative and Garden State Equality hosted our first ever LGBTQ+ Family Planning Webinar. Jennifer Sherlock, Director of Clinical & Professional Education & Fetal Infant Mortality Review at SNJPC, brought this idea to the table in an effort to expand awareness, knowledge, and education for nursing and medical students in providing care for LGBTQ+ parents. After the first event, we received praise, but it was clear that this was a conversation that needed to continue. LGBTQ+ parents experience different forms of discrimination along with poor healthcare services, due to lack of education, personal beliefs, and lack of protective law and legislation. As a result, we decided to create a three-part series on LGBTQ+ family planning, focusing on policy, laws & legislation, LGBTQ+ affirming healthcare facilities and most importantly, LGBTQ+ parents and their lived experiences. 

Though these webinars are for all, our main demographic is expecting parents, LGBTQ+ families, medical practitioners, and nursing/medical students. Our goal is to begin changing the narrative of how LGBTQ+ parents are treated and taken care of throughout their journey of parenthood. On January 23, we hosted our first open panel discussion, which focused on parenting rights, policy, medical treatment, and pathways to conception, and our second panel about caring for LGBTQ+ families through pregnancy, labor, and delivery was held on April 17.

Our final panel discussion will be on July 17 from 1 to 3 pm on Zoom and will cover parental support and community resources, both within and outside the LGBTQ+ community. Sign up to attend our final panel discussion via Eventbrite.

The Mental Health Of Transgender and Non-Binary People In The Wake Of This Legislative Season

Damien Lopez (he/they), Project Manager & Trainer

LGBTQ+ community members from all walks of life are already at higher risk for harassment, intimidation, and bullying. LGBTQ+ people face housing discrimination and poverty at higher rates compared to their cis straight counterparts, and LGBTQ+ youth have higher rates of anxiety and depression. The current political climate is likely to have a negative impact on the mental health of LGBTQ+ people.

According to the Trevor Project National Mental Health Youth Survey, 45 percent of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth and 1 in 3 cisgender youth. 93 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said that they have worried about transgender people being denied access to gender-affirming medical care due to state or local laws.

Political attacks on transgender youth and the implementation of anti-transgender legislation put the transgender community at risk. The medical consensus is clear: all major medical bodies agree that being transgender is not a mental illness, A transgender person should be supported in their transition, and it is not helpful – it is in fact damaging – to force a child to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth.

This is the time when advocacy matters. There has been a clear and direct attack on our community and it will affect our youth more than it has already.

Now is the time to check in on your transgender family members, friends, and community. We are exhausted and tired of seeing our community be the direct attack of legislative and national erasure. It is hurtful and scary and can affect anyone mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Here are some ways to support the trans community during this difficult time:

  1. Support trans-led organizations fighting against anti-trans legislation
  2. Support trans authors, writers, singers, and creatives
  3. Be a friend to the community
  4. Show support for a friend transitioning
  5. Wear an ally pin
  6. Give your support by attending rallies, protests, and LGBTQ+ events
  7. Give your trans friends and family a big hug and a listening ear

Finding the Perfect Fit: Helping Incoming College Students Choose The Right School For Them

Sawyer Sussner (he/him), Intern

When I was first deciding where I wanted to go for college, I only received one piece of advice: go to the best school that will take you. When college decisions rolled around, that was just what I did. While I love the school where I ended up, many factors, including the student body, location of the school, and academic policies, were adjustments I didn’t know I would have to make until I had already enrolled at my institution. As an LGBTQ+ identifying college student, there were so many things that I wish I had looked for in my college when it came to acceptance before enrolling, but like many incoming LGBTQ+ college freshmen, I learned to adjust as I went along.

This adjustment period will be made easier by Garden State Equality’s upcoming College Score Sheet: a ranking of 40 of New Jersey’s colleges and universities based on their acceptance and resources for LGBTQ+ students. The institutions were ranked out of five in six different categories pertaining to life as a college student: academic life, student life, health and safety, administration, faculty, and housing for institutions that offer it, or commuting for institutions that don’t.

LGBTQ+ resources on campus are particularly important for LGBTQ+ people, especially safe places like LGBTQ+ student centers and student-led extracurriculars. In being tasked with building brand new support networks, sometimes for the first time, the mental health of many LGBTQ+ students suffers when universities lack the infrastructure to support them. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ students who attended institutions with LGBTQ+ student services saw their risk of attempting suicide decrease by 44 percent.

With the College Score Sheet, those looking to further their education can get a clearer picture of the resources colleges and universities have in place before making decisions to enroll. Each institution’s ranking also comes with a list of resources to a variety of support systems, including LGBTQ+ extracurriculars, mental health resources, or community centers outside of school.

With so many options for education, many prospective students aren’t sure where to look when it comes to a school’s LGBTQ+ support. However, in non-affirming environments, the academic performance of LGBTQ+ students suffers just as much as their mental health. According to a 2021 study conducted by The Proud and Thriving Project, 83 percent of LGBTQ+ college students felt stress in the past six months compared to 71 percent of non-LGBTQ+ students, which often leads to worse performance in school.

The best way for colleges and universities to combat negative mental health outcomes for their students is to invest in the support necessary to make their LGBTQ+ students feel comfortable. This includes establishing an on-campus LGBTQ+ student center, hiring mental health counselors who specialize in treating LGBTQ+ populations, and emphasizing allyship training for both faculty and students. LGBTQ+ students deserve to feel represented by their universities, especially during a time when the safety of LGBTQ+ people is so threatened. Colleges and universities aren’t just places where students go to learn, it’s also where they grow into well-rounded and capable individuals, and with the College Score Sheet, they’ll be able to decide which institution for them will do that best.

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