COACHELLA, Calif. — Alejandro Mesa Aguilar, a senior at Coachella Valley High School, says students at the school who identify as LGBTQ are often “invisible” and marginalized by other students and even faculty.
He and other young people in the community are now advocating for local schools to provide more, and better, mental health services and to create safe spaces for vulnerable students.
“Young people won’t be as threatened, everyone [will] see that there’s a sense of community instead of being so separate,” Aguilar said. “Hopefully, it’ll help us come together a little more.”
Aguilar is part of the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) team, a group of students from the Eastern Coachella Valley who have been researching and assessing the needs of LGBTQ students in the area.
“It is starting some conversations, specifically with the youth,” said Sahara Huazano, Schools Action Team lead with Building Health Communities Eastern Coachella Valley, which organized the YPAR team.
Huazano said being part of YPAR has allowed members to connect with other LGBTQ students outside of their direct circles.
“Just building that network can serve as a platform to start talking about these issues in other spaces,” said Huazano. “And not only in areas where it specifically focuses on LGBTQ youth, but bringing up conversations when we’re talking about health and neighborhoods …That’s the vision, to start uplifting the voices of people who are marginalized.”
A 2013 National School Climate Survey found that only 13 percent of rural LGBTQ students said staff members intervened most or all of the time when homophobic comments were made.
Other studies show that LGBTQ students are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges, while also experiencing higher rates of bullying by peers.
In 2012 the Coachella Valley Unified School District created the CHANGE (Channeling Hope and Nurturing Growth through Education) Center, which provides counseling and other mental health related services to students.
“The CHANGE Center is committed to creating an environment that fosters hope for students and their families who struggle with social, emotional and behavioral health issues,” said Linda Smith, mental health program manager at CVUSD.
The CHANGE Center is currently looking for ways to better support the LGBTQ student population, including through referrals to support programs in the Coachella Valley like Cup of Happy, which hosts regular events for 16-25 year olds that are focused on nurturing “healthy lifestyles and emotional wellness.”
As for Aguilar, he said through his research he has already learned more about the LGBTQ community in the Eastern Coachella Valley, including its size.
“There’s actually a lot of people here that are LGBTQ. I mean I was surprised to see the numbers,” he said. He added that many of them likely suffer from mental health issues because of their experience living in the ECV.
Earlier this year, the YPAR group conducted a survey of more than 600 young people, ages 14-24, from Desert Mirage High School and Coachella Valley High School to collect data on LGBT issues in the eastern Coachella Valley. During a community forum in May, the YPAR group discussed the findings of their study, including that one in ten youth surveyed identified as LGBTQ and that many said they felt most comfortable at school despite facing bullying and harassment.
“Those people could be affected by mental health issues because of the coming out process, or because of other forms of social interactions that they have here in the Valley,” Aguilar said.
The group hopes their study will help bring more funding and a dedicated LGBTQ center to the eastern Coachella Valley. The full study is expected to be made public on Friday, June 17.