Ruth Ellis Center pivots during COVID pandemic to continue offering support to LGBTQ+ youth

Many face isolation, mental health struggles due to pandemic

The COVID pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in death by suicide for young people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

HIGHLAND PARK, Mich. – The COVID pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in death by suicide for young people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

For years, the Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park has offered outreach including drop-in services, housing, and health and wellness programs.

When the “safe space” had to go virtual, the nonprofit used every platform available to reach out to vulnerable youths.

“We’ve seen an increase in death by suicide during the pandemic for LGBTQ young people. Which is heartbreaking,” Jessie Fullenkamp said.

Fullenkamp is a social worker with the Ruth Ellis Center.

When the world shut down due to the pandemic many young people lost vital spaces where they felt safe to be themselves.

“To have to be inside of a home or a space where you don’t have those moments is really, really difficult and that isolation, that depression just takes a lot of suicidality to the next level,” Fullenkamp said.

The Trevor Project uncovered troubling statistics. The national organization provides crisis and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people.

In a 2021 report surveying 35,000 people ages 13 to 24 it found that 42% seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

More than 80% stated that COVID-19 made their living situation more stressful. Only one in three found their home to be LGBTQ+ affirming. And 70% stated their mental health was “poor” most of the time or always during COVID.

“We know that LGBTQ young people are not only disproportionately affected by homelessness, but also face mental health challenges and substance use,” Mark Erwin said.

Erwin is the director of development and advancement with the Ruth Ellis Center.

“Many overdoses happened with our youth throughout COVID because of the stress, the social isolation, the lack of resources,” Lilianna Reyes said.

Reyes is the drop-in center director with the Ruth Ellis Center.

Pride parades and events were also cancelled last year due to the pandemic. For some, that’s their only opportunity to express their authentic self.

“That congregation, when you take it away, they can feel isolated. They can feel sad. Honestly though, the folks that are experiencing high rates of suicide and depression are because of lack of access to resources, not so much the lack of access to pride,” Reyes said.

The Ruth Ellis Center had to pivot to continue offering life-saving outreach support.

“Telehealth was a huge switch for us,” Erwin said. “Young people were in crisis and needed to have access to spaces like Ruth Ellis Center.

More than 300 new iPhones were donated to help LGBTQ+ youth stay connected.

“It’s access to the young people that they really have defined as their family of choice. That’s extraordinarily important,” Erwin said.

Pride month is a huge fundraising opportunity for nonprofits. The Ruth Ellis Center held a STRIDE for PRIDE event in June. They are still accepting donations. Click here to learn more about STRIDE for PRIDE or find out how to donate.

READ: Continuous Pride Month coverage

About the Authors:

Priya joined WDIV-Local 4 in 2013 as a reporter and fill-in anchor. Education: B.A. in Communications/Post Grad in Advanced Journalism

Kayla is a Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit. Before she joined the team in 2018 she worked at WILX in Lansing as a digital producer.