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UConn researcher is ‘tuned in' to the LGBTQ+ youth mental health crisis

Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade.
Lynne Sladky
Participants with the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth march at the annual Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade.

A University of Connecticut researcher launched a mental health program targeted at LGBTQ+ youth — called “Tuned In!”

Gio Iacono, an assistant professor at UConn’s School of Social Work, said with the mental health crisis in America at an all-time high, the program tries to use a trauma-informed approach. A national survey conducted by the Trevor Project in 2021 found that 70% of LGBTQ+ youth and young adults in the United States reported having poor mental health.

He said the goal is to allow teens and young adults to seek out mental health assistance without fear of triggering ideas and concepts.

“It really, from a caring or clinical perspective, it's really trying to seek to create a safe and more supportive environment that acknowledges the impact of trauma,” Iacono said.

“It is a program that's been systematically developed over several years, probably since about 2017,” he added. “So, we finally came to this place where we've been able to pilot test it virtually in Connecticut with 50 LGBTQ youth that either work live or or study in Connecticut.”

The program engages LGBTQ+ youth and young adults with valuable coping strategies, including mindfulness and self compassion exercises, as well as practical approaches to address anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination and stress reduction activities.

“We had youth be extremely involved in how they wanted to see the practices employed in these interventions or programs,” Iacono described. “What things would be too triggering? What are ways we can adapt and provide choice to youth?"

“Choice is really one of the big buzz words that we use in trauma-informed practice because recognizing that there is a sensitive choice involved can lead to empowerment or agency as a young person experiencing trauma,” he said.

After the pilot program, Iacono said there were reported improvements in depression, anxiety, internalized homo/bi/transphobia, sexual self-efficacy, coping, mindfulness and self-compassion.

“I would argue that unrealistic standards around beauty and conforming to certain ideals, societal pressures to conform the commercialization of self-esteem as well are a big factor, and these issues affect people from all backgrounds, including LGBTQ folks,” Iacono said

He said he believes this shows that there's a promising way that youth can be adequately supported in the mental health field. He hopes that a group therapy program like this can be implemented statewide, or even nationally.

“We really were calling the mental health world to really pay more attention to this vulnerable population,” Iacono said. “There were positive trends, and those trends were maintained six months after the program ended, which is a significant positive finding, and we're still seeing improved depression, anxiety, etc.”

Madi Steddick is a news intern at WSHU for the fall of 2023.