The new department is opening at a time when young LGBTQ people are experiencing high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. The Trevor Project found earlier this year that more than 40 percent of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered attempting suicide during the pandemic, and more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth had. Nearly half of the respondents to The Trevor Project survey said they wanted mental health help but could not access it.
Sultan Shakir, the executive director of SMYAL, said young LGBTQ people face multiple barriers to accessing mental health care. They might not be able to afford therapy, or they might be on their parents’ insurance and afraid to out themselves. They may not even know how to find culturally competent care.
“And that’s why for this program, we wanted to ensure that one of the things that’s communicated first and foremost is that we are trying to work with you to remove those barriers,” Shakir said. “So whether you have insurance or you don’t, we are a place that can hopefully connect you with somebody in-house who can support you in the way that you're interested in being supported.”
Jennifer Sartorelli started taking her child to SMYAL after they came out as transgender and gender-diverse three years ago. (The Washington Post is not using the child’s name to protect their privacy.) The child was 9 at the time and attending a public school where other children bullied them. Girls refused to eat lunch near them, Sartorelli said, and other kids would intentionally hug everyone but Sartorelli’s child.
Sartorelli’s child seemed to feel happier and more understood after they began attending “Little SMYALs,” the nonprofit’s Saturday program for 6 to 12 year olds, but the nonprofit did not offer free therapy yet, and Sartorelli’s child needed mental health support. Sartorelli and her husband are both doctors, so they can afford private insurance, but even for them, it is expensive, and Sartorelli said she knows many other families who can’t afford therapy for their children.
“We recognize that LGBTQ plus youth have mental health struggles that are absolutely different from cis-hetero people,” Sartorelli said. “Our kid, sometimes when they’re not feeling well, they feel like this pressure to need to know what they are. Are they a boy or are they a girl or whatever? And they need that reassurance from family and the therapist saying, ‘You don’t have to know right now. You have time, you know, and you may never figure that out. And that’s OK. It’s just who you are.’”
SMYAL plans to serve up to 50 young people a week, all at no cost. The nonprofit added clinicians to create the program and plans to cover their salaries and other costs with the Kiwanis money, as well as other donations and a grant from the Youth Services Division of the D.C. Department of Human Services.
Naseema Shafi, the chief executive of Whitman-Walker Health, another agency that provides therapy to LGBTQ young people, said her organization welcomes SMYAL’s expansion.
“Absolutely, these services are needed,” Shafi said. “Young folks need more spaces where they can get the services they need in spaces that feel welcoming and where they can be their whole selves.”
When the DC Department of Health last surveyed young people in 2019, officials found that a third of lesbian, gay and bisexual middle-schoolers had attempted suicide. Nearly half of transgender high school students in D.C. have attempted suicide one or more times.
“These are staggering numbers and highlight that SMYAL’s new programs are necessary and will benefit many in our communities,” Shafi said.