KALAMAZOO – For years there has been a sense that youth are emotionally effected by the reactions of their families when they come out as gay or trans, but never before has there been hard data to track just how much of an impact families have. Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project in San Francisco, is making a rare visit to Kalamazoo to help incorporate her work into the system of care in that community. Ryan will be involved in a series of events that help connect her groundbreaking work with various levels of caregivers and individuals on Nov. 5 and 6.
On Nov. 5 from 1-3 p.m., Ryan will work with leaders in the faith-based community to help them understand the harm that comes from rejecting gay youth and the importance of working with entire families when a young person is going through the coming out process. The workshop will take place at the Kalamazoo Public Library and is free to attend.
The main presentation, “Beyond Tolerance: Promoting Family Support for LGBT Youth,” will take place from 6:30-8 p.m. at Western Michigan University’s Fetzer Center. It is also free and open to the public. Ryan will present her findings and answer questions.
On Nov. 6, there will be a workshop from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the WMU College of Health and Human Services. The cost of the training is $30, and for those who want continuing dducation credit for the course, there is a $15 fee.
Dr. Ryan’s research on LGBT youth is slowly making its way through peer-reviewed publications, while Ryan and her team at the Family Acceptance Project are hard at work developing a family intervention program that will challenge families to work together and engage in supportive behaviors.
“All too often I hear counselors and other LGBT service providers say they don’t talk about family issues because they presume it is too hurtful for people,” Ryan said. “But we find that families can have a great impact in reducing a young person’s risk of suicide, depression, disease, etc.”
After hours of talking with gay youth and adults, Ryan identified over 100 behaviors by parents that can express disapproval or support. She then began to track how the reactions of parents correlated with rates of depression, suicide, drug use and other destructive behaviors in teens and found that those who experienced rejection were 8.4 times more likely to report attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs and 3.4 times more likely to engage in unprotected sex.
“This seems logical, like it’s something we all know, but we’ve never had the data to back it up,” Ryan said. “Also it’s important to realize that most parents don’t want to harm their children. Parents react the ways they do because they don’t want their child to be hurt or treated like an outcast. If we can teach parents what behaviors harm and which behaviors help it can make a significant difference in that person working through things in a positive way.”
Regional, Cultural & Linguistic Competence Coordinator for Kalamazoo Community Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services Sharon Roepke has been working with Ryan to bring her research to the Kalamazoo community.
Ryan rarely does public conferences like this because there is so much research and writing to be done, but she felt that the Kalamazoo area was unique. “The Kalamazoo system of care receives a special System of Care Grant that helps engage all service providers in becoming more aware about LGBT issues and how to provide care to LGBT people no matter what the service,” Ryan explained. “It’s the first in the country specifically serving LGBT youth. So it’s important that all of these organizations understand the importance of families in considering how to best serve this population.”
Leaders in many service areas will be involved, including LGBT groups, suicide prevention and mental health. Providers from outside the Kalamazoo area are welcome, as this is the only presentation in the Midwest.
“I heard Caitlin present at a national conference a year ago and was interested in hearing more,” Roepke said. “She was really able to demonstrate how parents reactions have an impact. Too often we give up on family members and focus on the young person, instead of being supportive and trying to get the families involved. As counselors, we need to understand that working alone is not as effective as working with families.”
“Even if a parent doesn’t like what the child has to say, there are ways of letting them know they are loved and cared for,” Ryan added. “We can see now how this makes a difference.”
For more information or to register for this event, please call Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services at 269-553-8110.