For the past year, UCAN has participated in Positive Relationship Outreach Support for Youth (PROSY), the pilot for a multifaceted mental health program aimed at providing clinical, educational and social support to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) youth. Created and instructed by Eddie Burks, a Schweitzer Fellow and graduate student at Loyola University, the program creates a safe space to empower and educate UCAN’s LGBTQ youth about issues unique to their lives through trainings and workshops. Additionally, the program provides supplemental workshops for foster parents and clinical staff on how to better communicate with LGBTQ clients about their unique issues.
PROSY meets over the course of 6-12 week sessions and is divided into four major components: coping skills and support systems, health and sexual education, LGBTQ identity development and advocacy skill building, and community resources.
Burks moved to Chicago when he was seven years old and soon found himself in the foster care system. As he grew up he began to come to terms with his bisexuality, but was not finding proper support. “When I think about my placement in foster care, I know that I wasn’t getting the help that I need.” Burks said, “A lot of clinical professionals didn’t and still don’t know how to address sexual and gender identity.”
The reality is that UCAN’s clients have often suffered trauma that can put them at a disadvantage if not properly counseled. Since they are still polarizing topics, the clinical field sometimes ignores the gravity of sexual and gender identity in a youth’s development, and can unintentionally neglect integral aspects of one of the most at-risk groups of youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBTQ youth are 2-4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers and are also more likely to experience homelessness. Though not all our youth experience the same level of trauma associated with their sexual and gender identity, the already high stress of being a ward of the state or living in a violent neighborhood is often compounded with that of coming out, and these youth can very easily be lost without the proper services.
The PROSY program provides those services and gives a voice and support system to LGBTQ youth. Projects like PROSY are an important voice positively affirming a youth’s sexual or gender identity, as well as bringing additional awareness to staff. It is important that clinical staff members working with LGBTQ clients and clients who might be LGBTQ are able to relate personally and give proper guidance. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs, it is important to treat all clients equally. Too often youth battle with the cultural ramifications of their sexual and gender identities and are excluded from the world, their communities and their families. “The stress is just TOO much,” Burks recalled. “PROSY needs to exist to take on some of the burden.”