Non-binary youth and mental health: findings from the COSMO study

By Felix Lane on April 23rd, 2024.

Felix Lane, Trans Advocacy Manager at Stonewall, discusses the insights COSMO offers on the wellbeing of non-binary young people.

The COSMO study offers some valuable insights into the mental health of young people from different parts of the LGBTQ+ community. These insights suggest more support is needed, particularly for non-binary young people. With many conversations currently happening about how best to support trans and gender diverse young people, particularly in an educational context, it is important to consider these findings and implement their recommendations.

Participants in the second wave of COSMO were 17 to 18-years-old. The mental health of non-binary young people in this cohort is strikingly poor in comparison to their peers. Non-binary is a term that covers a diverse range of gender identities that do not necessarily fit into the male/female binary. Some non-binary people also describe themselves as trans, which means that their gender does not completely match with the sex they were assigned at birth.

It is concerning that non-binary+ young people were the most likely to say they have self-harmed (57%). This is in comparison with 20% of females and 9% of males in the study. The COVID-19 pandemic also had a substantial impact on many young people. For instance, the LGBT Foundation experienced a 25% increase in calls asking for support with suicidal thoughts during the 2020 lockdowns. Furthermore, Just Like Us’ 2021 Growing Up LGBT+ report found that LGBT+ young people were 3 times more likely to self harm, and that 68% of LGBT+ young people said their mental health had ‘got worse’ since the pandemic, compared to 49% of their non-LGBT+ peers. 

Being cut off from people they feel comfortable around as a result of lockdowns was a contributing factor to these figures, as was feeling like they were living in anti LGBT+ environments if they lacked support at home. Research from Galop in their 2022 report LGBT+ Experiences of Abuse from Family Members found that nearly half of trans and non-binary people have experienced abuse from their family, usually starting before they were 18. For trans and non-binary young people facing this abuse, the COVID-19 lockdowns could have been particularly difficult.

In light of all this research and evidence, it is vital that trans and non-binary young people get the support they need when experiencing mental health difficulties, and that the support on offer comes from a place of acceptance and understanding of their identities. The COSMO study recommends that, “More tailored support for non-binary+ and trans young people is required, and it should be delivered by professionals who have been trained to understand the needs of these young people.” It also suggests that “Support for those who are struggling to talk about their gender and those who are experiencing discrimination regarding gender, as well as for parents and schools, should be easily accessible.” 

Another important and troubling finding from the COSMO study is that nearly three quarters (70%) of non-binary+ young people said they have experienced some form of harassment in the last 12 months, with 2 in 5 (44%) having been harassed specifically about their sex, gender, or gender identity. Non-binary+ respondents were also far more likely to report bullying (49%). Further to this, the 2023 Youth Voice Census found that, "100% of transgender people said they did not feel welcome at their secondary school compared to 9.7% of those who are not transgender." 

The findings tell us that more urgently needs to be done to combat transphobic bullying and harassment, including in schools and colleges. There is consensus across the children’s sector that this is necessary, and that trans and non-binary youth deserve acceptance and support. In their policy position on sexual orientation and gender identity, Save The Children stated that, “We should advocate that services, including schools, should promote equality and inclusion, including educating everyone about non-discrimination.” In a statement from 2020 on trans rights, children’s charity Barnardo’s stated that, “There is still a long way to go to achieve trans equality in the UK. As things stand, we know that trans children and young people are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health, due to a lack of acceptance and support, which can affect their long-term outcomes. Everyone should be supported to live as who they are, and more needs to be done so that trans children and young people, and those exploring their gender identity, receive the support and recognition they need.”

Schools need to ensure that all their students are safe and able to be themselves. The COSMO study recommends that, “all schools should implement a well-evidenced anti-bullying programme” and that “strategies and programmes should recognise the heightened experiences of bullying and harassment identified here for marginalised groups and adapt plans accordingly.” These recommendations acknowledge the additional support that marginalised groups like non-binary youth need, and the responsibility that schools and their staff have to protect them from bullying.

The COSMO study rightly draws attention to some of the issues facing marginalised young people in relation to their mental health. It is clear that non-binary and trans youth are facing heightened levels of poor mental health, harassment, and bullying. It is essential that tailored support is offered to them and that the bullying they disproportionately face is tackled, to ensure that they can not only survive, but thrive, as they deserve to.