LGBTQ+ youth organization works to change landscape of mental health

Big Brothers Big Sisters NYC is leading a citywide coalition to advocate for policy changes

ANGELA WEISS / Contributor

Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, the nation’s first and the city's largest youth mentoring organization founded in 1904, is at the head of a citywide coalition of LGBTQ+ youth serving organizations advocating for policy changes that address the mental health of the population. 

The LGBTQ+ Youth Coalition represents organizations that offer various services to LGBTQ+ youth. The coalition members include the Hetrick-Martin Institute, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and the Department of Education, among others. The coalition also aims to create connections amongst the different resources that each organization offers, ranging from after-school mental health resources to immediate issues such as housing and food insecurity. 

“How do we create social, emotional learning opportunities and create mental health support systems? How do we set young people up for long-term success? And how do we include that as part of the conversation around supporting resources funding from the city? That's one of the drivers for the coalition” said Mike Coughlin, chief program officer of BBBS of NYC. 

In the midst of a global pandemic and a slew of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, advocates have been concerned about what was already the already declining mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. According to the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are about four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual peers. Now, with legislation affecting the population such as Florida’s Don’t Say Gay law, advocates are pushing for a coordinated effort to change such policies and obtain more funding for LGBTQ+ youth.

In response to the mental health crisis, Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC (BBBS) provides culturally competent mentors who identify as LGBTQ+, giving mentees someone who can empathize with their experiences, alongside various programs such as Workplace Mentoring, College and Career counseling and Affinity groups. 

“Where a young person might feel disconnected from their peers or feel disconnected from their community, they have a mentor who’s reaching out to them through our program. It's two times per month and they're not only checking in on the students well-being, but also encouraging them to get back involved. They spend two outings per month, oftentimes in the community doing something fun.” said Coughlin. In addition, each mentor-mentee pair is equipped with a Program Manager who acts as a specialist in their relationship development; this ensures accountability among both parties. 

The coalition comes after Big Brothers Big Sisters expanded its matching policy, to ensure that all mentees were matched with mentors of their same self-identifying gender. In addition to gender, mentees were matched according to preferences such as shared interest, background, language —prioritizing the needs and preferences of youth above those of the parent/guardians. These changes came as a natural progression of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mission to match youth to meaningful mentors best suited to their needs. Doing so helped address intersectional issues, for instance, with immigrant queer youth benefitting greatly by speaking to mentors with similar cultural experiences. 

“Something that we really hold strong at BBBS is that mentoring really does change lives. I think most people can look back and think of at least one or probably a couple of different people that helped shape their life and helped them with some difficult decisions or just opened doors for them, and we want to democratize that. We want to make sure that that's available to everybody and if there's any sort of policies or anything that we can do to make sure that young people see the value of mentoring and have access to mentoring, that's what we want to do” said Coughlin.