Becoming a welcoming place for LGBTQ+ youth

Dealing with mental health issues is hard enough without adding isolation and fear – yet that’s exactly what many LGBTQ+ youth face upon entering residential treatment. Often forced to conform to cultural norms with which they don’t identify, youth may feel they can’t be honest with their treatment providers, and thereby stunt their ability to heal.

But Oaklawn is working to flip the script for LGBTQ+ youth by providing a safe and welcoming place to engage in treatment. In residential treatment, where every facet of daily living contributes to the therapeutic environment, it’s of utmost importance that youth are accepted for who they are, said Joel Kern, clinical manager of Oaklawn’s Child and Adolescent Intensive Services.

“That adds to their ability to deal with their mental health and integrate themselves fully into their environment,” he said. “Oaklawn wants to be the place where youth are welcomed, and they’re welcome to be themselves.”

Oaklawn is actively addressing this through policy changes that ensure specific rights for LGBTQ+ youth on campus. These include the right to designate their first name and pronoun preference, clothing and undergarments typical of any gender and the right to shower and dress privately.

Additionally, Oaklawn’s therapists are equipped to help youth sort through their questions about sexuality and orientation through professional cultural competency training, the use of Gender Quest curriculum and partnerships with LGBTQ+ organizations. Housed on Oaklawn’s Goshen campus is Mosaic Health and Healing Arts, Indiana’s first primary care practice specializing in the LGBTQ+ population. Mosaic offers several LGBTQ+ support groups each month, which Oaklawn youth can attend as it supports treatment.

Cassie Davis, lead therapist, says as many as half of the youth on her caseload grapple with questions of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Kern said, “Sometimes being able to question safely allows a youth to discover their true identity.”

Trauma can be a complicating factor in that process, he said. Many youth in residential treatment have been sexually abused. “We have to help them unpair their trauma from their sexuality,” Kern said.

Offering a safe place where youth can walk through that journey is a top priority for Oaklawn and one more way it excels in clinical care.

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