News & Press
LGBT support group helps teens be OK with who they are
By Karen Bota
For the Ionia Sentinel-Standard
Posted Jun. 12, 2015 at 11:42 PM
IONIA COUNTY, Mich.
Adolescence is a time filled with many stressors, as children become teens and begin to work on finding their new places and roles in the world around them. For young people who identify with a different gender or are wondering about their sexual orientation, the teen years can be a nightmare.
In rural communities, there often aren’t the resources for these kids and their families that are available in larger metropolitan areas, which can make the teen years destructive. That's why Angela Wojcik, an outpatient child and family therapist with Ionia County Community Mental Health, started a support group for LGBT teens: so lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adolescents have a place to come together to talk, gain an understanding of their own identity, reinforce a positive sense of value and self-worth, and question and challenge stereotypes.
Wojcik is facilitating the support group at the ICCMH building on Apple Tree Drive in Ionia. The group, which is open to teens from across Ionia County, is meeting once a week during the summer.
"My main goal is for this to be a safe and confidential place to connect with others who have a shared experience to tell their stories," said Wojcik, who usually works with children and adolescents out of her office in the agency's satellite building in Belding. “Many of these kids have been bullied and come in feeling victimized and alienated.”
She estimates that, based on her caseload, as much as 20 percent of young people identify as LGBT, which makes their teen years especially hard. Kids in the LGBT community have increased rates of suicide; higher incidences of being bullied; more mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and self-harm; they miss more school and are more likely to drop out than their non- LGBT peers, Wojcik said.
While society as a whole is moving toward acceptance of LGBT individuals, it’s been a struggle for these teens to feel safe to “come out” in settings like school and with their peers. Without clubs or support groups, it is “extremely difficult” to find a community where they can make friends and overcome isolation, Wojcik said, adding that 6 in 10 LGBT teens report feeling unsafe at school, research has shown.
“There’s nothing here in Ionia County to offer them support, but as a community we can work on improving that,” she said. “Groups like Community Mental Health and Gay-Straight Alliances are really great for kids, and it sounds like they really need that.”
A Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) is a student-run club in high school or middle school, where students can meet in a safe space to lend each other support, talk about issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and work together to end homophobia and transphobia.
Wojcik hopes that, ultimately, the teens in her group will feel empowered to start GSAs in their own schools, where they can join with other LGBT teens – and their allies – to get the backing they need to “feel validated,” she said.
Parents also want to learn how they can better support their children so they feel safe in their homes, schools and communities, according to Wojcik.
“This is a new experience for them, too,” she said. “We need to have resources for families and the friends who want to support them and accept them, regardless.”
Families have asked her for assistance. For some, transportation and gas money to drive to Grand Rapids or Lansing to access resources there is a barrier they wouldn’t face if there were local parent groups. That’s why it’s important to provide groups here: to eliminate as many barriers to acceptance for LGBT teens and their families as possible.
“I hope with the GSAs, kids will feel empowered to start these clubs. Having kids show strength empowers the movement in the rest of the community to show acceptance of them,” Wojcik said.
To learn more about the LGBT teen support group or to join, call Ionia County Community Mental Health at 616-527-1790.