One of Austin’s newest non-profits, SanghaLink, is tackling the escalating issue of isolation, depression and suicide amongst teen LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning) populations through an online community platform. In the wake of the recent suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a teen who was grappling with her gender and sexuality, founder Anna Weingart plans to integrate the platform in local high schools throughout the nation.
“Sadly, we cannot go back in time and prevent Leelah Alcorn’s death, but we can honor her wish to change our society and our schools, which was her plea to give her death meaning,” Weingart said. “The word ‘Sangha’ is Sanskrit for community. An educated, proactive community can prevent so many of the issues that LGBTQ teens experience – even suicide.”
Weingart founded SanghaLink in 2014 to address the growing need for support and community within the LGBTQ teen population. She said that currently, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, and that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. In addition, each episode of LGBTQ victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times, on average.
Weingart said many students find it difficult to connect with others for fear of rejection, or there may only be a very small LBGTQ population at their school. Stigma, discrimination and bullying against LGBTQ teens feed into depression, substance abuse, isolation and other suicidal risk factors.
“Research has shown that community and support can greatly diminish these risk factors. I had no idea that there were other gay teens in/around Austin, and I certainly didn’t know how to find them,” Weingart said. “I want to make it so that no student wrestling with these issues, no matter where they are, has to do so alone.”
SanghaLink launched a pilot program last year with several Austin-area high schools. Utilizing a secure, online social network through the school, students must complete a profile questionnaire, be approved to participate and must be under 18 years of age. The site is monitored by SanghaLink staff to prevent bullying or any inappropriate content. Students are given the option to remain anonymous. The site is intended for open and safe discussions and for teens to freely voice their feelings, concerns and fears — and to be heard.
Kate Ward, a teacher at NYOS Charter School and sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, praised the benefits of SanghaLink. “I hear from kids how much they want to find other LGBTQ kids to chat with. With so many feeling abandoned by their families and friends, they need a channel to connect with each other and to create supportive communities while feeling assured of their safety. SanghaLink is that channel, providing kids with a sense of place when the places they’re used to feel unwelcoming.”
Weingart plans to launch SanghaLink nationwide throughout 2015-16. For more information on SanghaLink or to get involved, visit www.SanghaLink.org.