June is Pride Month, when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and others who identify as non-binary, as well as those who support them, join together as a community. They celebrate who LGBT people are and affirm their dignity with parades, special events, and lots and lots of rainbows — the symbol of pride.

Pride Month is an occasion for promoting LGBT equal rights, raising awareness, and protesting discrimination. It also presents an opportunity to check in with the LGBT teens — who are at a particularly vulnerable stage of life — to see how they are faring in our communities.

Many teenagers are not forthcoming. Fortunately, there are data from the 2017 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey that can be used to discern what’s happening with our teens. It is a direct student survey of students in the fifth through 12th grades that quantifies their health-related behaviors and attitudes. Students are asked about such topics as asthma, depression, diabetes, nutrition, physical activity, weight, and substance use, among others.

In particular, the survey data provides us with invaluable information about what’s going on with high schoolers — LGBT and non-LGBT teens alike. There is some concerning news and some good news to share. Here’s a snapshot from the MIYHS of how Maine teens responded when asked about their behavior in the past 30 days:

• 28.5 percent of LGBT teens report drinking alcohol, compared to 22.1 percent of non-LGBT teens.

• 28.9 percent of LGBT teens report using marijuana, compared to 18.1 percent of non-LGBT teens.

• 17.9 percent of LGBT teens report prescription drug misuse, compared to 8.2 percent of non-LGBT teens.

• LGBT teens are twice as likely to smoke cigarettes and misuse pain medication as non-LGBT teens.

In addition, 71 percent of transgender teens report feeling depressed for two or more weeks within the past year.

These data clearly are cause for concern.

• Like all minority youth, LGBT youth can experience feelings of stress and isolation, leading to higher rates of underage drinking.

• Youth perceive marijuana use as a low-risk behavior when it is normalized in the community.

• LGBT youth often experience stigma-related stress, which can lead to higher rates of substance use.

Now for the good news. Forty-six percent of transgender teens report feeling their parents help them succeed. Strong familial support reduces the risk of youth substance use. Parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family members can take action by expressing love and acceptance.

Creating communities where youth can thrive and stigma is lessened can help reduce youth substance use. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to take action and some of the steps are quite simple. Students, school bus drivers, teachers, counselors, coaches, school board members, family members, friends, neighbors, youth volunteers, and community members can all take action by learning how to reduce stigma. For example, any member of a community can express acceptance and respect and be welcoming of LGBT teens. Going a step further by becoming an advocate or volunteer for youth programming can help even more; the presence of a caring adult in a teen’s life also reduces the risk of youth substance use.

Educating youth about substances and substance use is another way to help. Youth see marijuana use as low risk because it’s been legalized, so they need to know about the risks. The teenage brain is still developing, and therefore particularly vulnerable to substances. Marijuana use can cause impairments in learning, memory, cognitive functioning, and more. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Tobacco is legal but it’s far from safe. Understanding the harm tobacco has on the developing teenage brain can prevent youth from using tobacco, and learning the truth about big tobacco marketing can dissuade them as well.

This month, you can join the celebration by supporting LGBT youth: demonstrate your acceptance of them, treat them with respect, welcome them into your communities, advocate on their behalf, and educate them about substance use. In this way, you will be helping LGBT youth take pride in who they are and the healthy choices they can make. That’s something worth celebrating.

Joanne E. A. Joy is executive director of Healthy Communities of the Capital Area.

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