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Mental Health Awareness Week 2022: Being there for estranged LGBTQ+ students

11 May 2022

Family estrangement is sadly all too common for LGBTQ+ students. For Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, Fiona Ellison – Director of the Unite Foundation, of which Unite Students is proud to be the principal supporter – shares what the Foundation is doing to support estranged and care experienced LGBTQ+ students, and what Higher Education institutions can do to support their mental health and wellbeing. 

Last month, the Unite Foundation team were in attendance at National Student Pride at London’s University of Westminster – and what a bright, bold and beautiful event it was! We were proud to be there to celebrate LGBTQ+ students and raise awareness of our Unite Foundation scholarship, launched in 2012, and the This Is Us student-led Community.

Our work to raise awareness is brought into focus even more strongly now during Mental Health Awareness Week. Care experienced and estranged students, especially those who are LGBTQ+, can face considerable prejudice and discrimination as they progress to adulthood, which can frequently have a detrimental impact on their mental health whilst they transition to university and beyond. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS)’s latest data suggests that around 2.7% of the general population are LGB, rising to 6.6% amongst young people aged 16-24, with a further 1.7% identifying under the transgender umbrella. Our own figures from the last 10 years show that the LGBTQ+ population amongst our scholarship students is markedly higher than in the general and student populations. In 2020, at least 16% of all our scholarship applicants identified themselves at LGBTQ+ which rose to 22% amongst those students who were also estranged. Current applicants for the scheme, which is open now, shows a growing trend, with 26% of estranged applicants being LGBTQ+.  

Unfortunately, many young LGBTQ+ people are estranged from their families, meaning they have no contact or a strained relationship with their parents/wider relations, often because they were not accepted for being who they are. Being an estranged student can be a very isolating experience. There continues to be much stigma in our society and the fear of coming out and facing estrangement can pose a substantial barrier to young LGBTQ+ people accessing the help they need, including for their mental health. 

Anecdotal evidence from our own scholarship students and research by the Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT), shows that LGBTQ+ young people are disproportionately represented in the young homeless population. AKT’s LGBT Youth Homelessness report found that as many as 24% of young homeless people are LGBTQ+, 69% of those had experienced violence, abuse or rejection from the family home and 77% state that their LGBT identity was a causal factor in them becoming homeless.  

At the Unite Foundation, we are working to alleviate the mental health challenges of these students by reducing the roadblocks they face to accessing higher education through the provision of a safe and secure home, as well as helping them belong and find communities of likeminded people.  

Mindful that community connection and integration is a key factor for mental wellbeing as students arrive at university, we have just launched the This Is Us Student-led Community for all UK estranged and care experienced students. This is a dedicated and safe online space where care experienced and estranged students can chat with others, share helpful information, arrange meet-ups, find existing local groups near them, have serious conversations – whatever they’d like. This resource is free, national and available to all ages of students.   

We also provide direct support to young people who are estranged or care experienced, through the Unite Foundation scholarship that covers accommodation and bills for up to three years of study, 365 days a year. Ensuring that students have somewhere to call home throughout the holidays, or after graduation, takes away the stress of ensuring a safe and stable place to live. So far, over 500 estranged and young people who are care leavers have received a Unite Foundation scholarship.   


What can those in Higher Education do to support the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ estranged and care experienced students? 

  1. Encourage them to join the This Is Us Student-led Community on Mighty Networks.  
  2. Recognise the high intersectionality that exists between being LGBTQ+ and being a care experienced or an estranged student – consider how your services and communications explore that to underpin mental health and wellbeing.   
  3. Be proactive in considering housing fragility/home conflict as a potential element of the LGBTQ+ student experience – audit your assumptions about where students are during ‘holidays’ or reading periods and make sure they always have a home at university. 
  4. If you’re at one of our 26 partner universities, share the Unite Foundation scholarship application detail with them (deadline 1st June). 

You can read more about the Unite Foundation’s work, as well as content produced by the students supported by the Foundation, at their website:  

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