Albany Agenda

Opinion: Nationwide, LGBTQ+ young people are in crisis. New York can do something about it.

We must include funding for free mental health appointments for our youth in this year’s state budget.

New Yorkers hold a vigil for Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died after being beaten in a high school bathroom, outside The Stonewall Inn in Manhattan.

New Yorkers hold a vigil for Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager who died after being beaten in a high school bathroom, outside The Stonewall Inn in Manhattan. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a mental health clinician to know that the state of youth mental health is in decline. As chair of the state Senate Committee on Mental Health, I hear stories every day from young people and their families, educators and advocates regarding the lack of resources available to children and teens, and the effect that bullying, social media and current events have on their mental health. 

This is especially true for LGBTQ+ youth, who are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers. And while data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that approximately one in 10 students attempt suicide, that rate skyrockets to nearly 50% for trans and nonbinary youth. These are children who watch their existence debated as a political talking point, often in a manner that dehumanizes them and discredits their lived experiences – and contributes not only to how these young people feel about themselves, but how they are treated by our broader society. 

Like so many, I was disturbed and heartbroken when I learned about the death of 16-year-old Nex Benedict last month. As more information continued to be made public, I struggled with questions for which I am still looking for answers. How could this happen in a school? Where were the adults? What kinds of behavior went unchecked in that community for actions to escalate to such a violent, brutal level? What does this mean for other LGBTQ+ young people who might be struggling? Will they be next? 

What I do know is this: while the exact cause of Nex’s death is unclear, in many ways, that’s not the most important part of this story. What matters most is that adults, whether directly or indirectly, created an environment where bullying went unchecked, and the voices of LGBTQ+ youth went ignored – which tragically resulted in the life of a young person being cut short. 

Here in New York, as state budget negotiations continue, we must consider what action we can take to prevent tragedies like this from happening to our children. Our state can and should be a leader in providing young people with the resources they need to thrive, and there is work we need to do to ensure that every young person, regardless of the identities they hold, receives the compassionate care they deserve. 

In 2022, more than half of LGBTQ+ youth in New York who wanted mental health care were not able to access it. That’s why our state budget should include funding for my legislation to provide youth with five free mental health appointments, virtual or in person, so that young people in every corner of our state can access the care they need, when they need it. The budget must also include my bill to establish a Youth Mental Health Advisory Board, which will

create a space for students across our state to make their voices heard in the legislature on the issues that matter most to them and offer policy solutions grounded in real-world experiences. 

This time of year, lawmakers often equate the state budget to a broader statement of values. If we believe this is true, and if we value the lives and experiences of our young people, we can only accept a state budget that prioritizes youth mental health – particularly LGBTQ+ youth mental health – as the emergency that it is. 

It shouldn’t take a beating in a high school bathroom for us to see how harmful exposure to hateful, transphobic rhetoric can be. Every 45 seconds, a young person who identifies as LGBTQ+ attempts suicide. That’s at least two children since you started reading this editorial, and nearly 2,000 per day. Our children are counting on us to do better, and we can start by investing in meaningful change in this year’s budget.