The following is a conversation between Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: According to a recent survey, 39% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, with more than half transgender youth seriously considering the same thing. Those are alarming statistics. But if you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, and in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, there is such a place to turn to. It’s called The Trevor Project, and it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight their CEO and Executive Director, Amit Paley.
Good evening, Amit, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Amit: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: The Trevor Project was founded back in 1998. How did it get started?
Amit: The Trevor Project got started actually out of storytelling in Hollywood. There was a short film called Trevor, a fictional story about a young 13-year-old boy named Trevor, who realized that he was gay and then dealt with feelings of depression and suicide. It ended up winning an Academy Award for best short film. And after it did, it aired on HBO. The producers of the film realized, “Well, all these young people across the country are going to see this movie. We want to make sure that they can get resources if they are young people like Trevor.” And what they discovered was that there was no national organization providing that support for LGBTQ youth.
The movie was called Trevor, so they founded a nonprofit called The Trevor Project. They created the country’s first 24/7 phone lifeline for LGBTQ youth. They launched it about 10 minutes before the show went on the air on HBO, and then the phone started ringing off the hook that night,… and it hasn’t stopped for the past 21 years.
…one of the things that we saw very clearly is that young people right now are identifying in very different ways than people might have before.
We often see that young people who have identities that are perhaps not as well-known face some of the highest risk, in particular transgender and non-binary youth.
Denver: Incredible. Well, the statistics I cited in the opening came from your organization’s first national mental health survey among LGBTQ youth. Share with us some of the key findings of that survey.
Amit: So this was, first of all, a really important and groundbreaking study. There were more than 30,000 young people across the country who took part in this.
Denver: That’s extensive.
Amit: So important, but also really heartbreaking. As you shared, 39% of LGBTQ youth seriously consider suicide every year. That actually ends up converting into more than 1.8 million LGBTQ youth across the country who seriously consider suicide. This is a public health crisis, and the full report goes into detail about: this is not a problem that affects just one gender, just one race, just one part of the country.
We heard from young people in all 50 states, and in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, and one of the things that we saw very clearly is that young people right now are identifying in very different ways than people might have before. In our survey, young people identified more than a hundred different types of sexual orientations, and more than a hundred different types of gender identities. We often see that young people who have identities that are perhaps not as well-known face some of the highest risk, in particular transgender and non-binary youth. They face much higher rates of attempts of suicide, of considering suicide, and they also face much more discrimination in their lives.
Denver: Did your survey indicate that the political climate has any kind of impact in the way they feel?
Amit: Yes. We found that young people in the survey, more than half of them, said that the political climate had an impact on their mental health. We’ve also seen that in other types of data that we’ve been collecting. The day after the presidential election in 2016, our call volume more than doubled in a 24-hour period of time. When there are negative policies… in particular, there have been a lot of negative policies in the past few years against transgender and non-binary people, we have seen spikes in those young people feeling distressed and reaching out to us for help.
LGBTQ young people are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Denver: Looking at those numbers another way, I know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in the US. How much more likely is it for LGBTQ youth?
Amit: LGBTQ young people are more than four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers; so suicide overall is a public health crisis in this country, particularly acute for young people, and then it’s LGBTQ youth who really face these much higher rates. Suicide is often an issue that people do not feel comfortable talking about; there’s still a lot of stigma. And that’s what we’re trying to– both get the word out on how significant a public health crisis there is, and to also let young people know that they are never alone, and they can always reach out to the Trevor Project for help.
I think what’s very important for everyone to know is that one of the most important things you can do to understand if someone is thinking about suicide is to ask them.
Denver: Well, learning the warning signs of suicide is a huge part of presenting a crisis. What are some of those signs?
Amit: So, there are a number of different warning signs that can indicate that someone might be thinking about suicide. They might be feeling lethargic. They might not be willing to go to school or get out of bed. They might seem withdrawn. I think what’s very important for everyone to know is that one of the most important things you can do to understand if someone is thinking about suicide is to ask them.
A lot of people are very nervous about that. Some people think that if you ask someone, it might plant the idea in their head. That is not true; that is a myth. All the research indicates that is not correct. In fact, asking someone if they are thinking of killing themselves can be life-saving for that person because it can allow them to share what they’re going through and allow you to make a connection with them and try to identify places where they can get help.
Denver: That’s great advice. If I may, what was it like for you when you realized you were gay, and what thoughts ran through your mind?
Amit: When I was a teenager, I realized that I was gay, and it was really difficult for me because I had this idea that if anyone ever knew who I was, they would never accept me and that they would never love me. I kept that part of myself hidden for a really long time, and it was very, very difficult, and I was in a lot of dark places in parts of my teenage years and into college.
I came out in my senior year of college, and although I faced some difficulties in doing that, it was such an important part of my life, because when you are unable to share who you are, it really has a significant impact on your mental health.
Denver: I can imagine.
Amit: Today, as a proud LGBTQ person leading an organization, it’s kind of amazing for me to reflect on the thing that I was most ashamed about, the thing that I was most afraid that anyone would ever find out about me, is now not actually something that I’m incredibly proud of, but is actually my life’s work– to talk to people about being proud and supportive of LGBTQ people.
Denver: You were a volunteer at The Trevor Project for maybe eight years or so before you became the CEO. So, you’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from young people, and I know that you continue to man the phones to this day. What are you hearing? What are the messages that come through?
Amit: First of all, I want to say that that being a volunteer counselor on the TrevorLifeline is the most rewarding thing I have ever done and continue to do. And I, as you said, continue to talk to young people.
…the most rewarding ones are when you have the ability to make a connection, and you can tell that it’s a key transformational moment in that person’s life.
Denver: That’s great because a lot of CEOs…you lose touch with the organization when you stop doing that, and it becomes important to continue. So, I applaud you for continuing to work those phones.
Amit: Well, thank you for saying that. For me, it’s a privilege to be able to do it, and it’s incredibly rewarding. I do also think it’s really helpful in my job as CEO that: not just looking at numbers, not just looking at long-term strategic plans, but actually the reason we exist as an organization is to be there for LGBTQ youth and be able to hear directly from them really does inform so much of what I do in my day-to-day part of my job.
In terms of what we hear from young people, it’s a little bit hard to sort of put that into one category because we hear from so many young people, and they have so many different types of experiences. We hear from some young people who are calling because they literally have a weapon in their hands, and they are thinking about killing themselves shortly. Sometimes we hear from young people who are not imminently thinking of killing themselves, but they’re in a really difficult situation. They were just in a breakup; they’re thinking about coming out, and they’re struggling with it. They’re having a tough time at school because someone is bullying them. So, it’s a wide range of experiences.
I think, for me, the most rewarding ones are when you have the ability to make a connection, and you can tell that it’s a key transformational moment in that person’s life. I think about one call that I had with a young woman who was in the middle of the country – I won’t say exactly where – and she was talking about the fear that she had about her father not accepting her, and she wasn’t sure whether she should come out to anyone. She said, “I just don’t know what would happen if I came out because I’ve never told anyone that I’m a lesbian.” I said to her, “Well, you’ve come out to me. You’ve told me that you’re a lesbian. And I have to tell you, there may be people in your life who won’t accept you for being who you are, and your father may be one of those people, but I need you to know that there are many, many people in the world who will not only accept you for being who you are, but will celebrate you and be proud of who you are. And I want you to know that I am one of those people, and I am incredibly proud of you.” And when we say things like that to young people, often the next thing you hear is someone just sobbing because they never thought that someone would not only tolerate them and accept them, but celebrate them. And that’s one of the most powerful things that we can do, is just to be there to listen and to affirm people for being who they are.
Denver: No question, that’s a great story. I think when you’re in that place, you’re only looking at the negative side of the equation and never looking at the other side of it. It’s just the way humans are built.
Do you have a psychiatrist or a psychologist on staff to help work with some of the people who call?
Amit: We do. So, we actually just hired our first ever medical director. She is a psychiatrist, and our head of Crisis Services is a clinical psychologist. We also have been building out our research department, and we have clinical psychologists in our research department as well. Not everyone in our staff is a psychiatrist or a psychologist. We have many people who are from different backgrounds in public health and social work, and many people who have been trained.
I think it is important to note that to be a volunteer counselor at The Trevor Project, you do not need to be a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a social worker. We can teach people who have basic skills around empathy. If you have the ability to empathize and the ability to learn and be adaptive and to create a safe and welcoming environment, we can teach you how to be a counselor.
But we do think it’s really important to make sure that we’re bringing in really important disciplinary perspectives from epidemiology, public health, psychiatry, psychology because oftentimes, so many parts of the mental health world are siloed, and suicide is too big a public health crisis and too complex to not be tapping into every source of knowledge and wisdom that we can.
Denver: For sure. Amit, do you ever encounter the challenge of regular callers?… People who may not be in a crisis mode at the moment, but are lonely or just want to chat. How do you address that situation while wanting to keep the lines free for somebody who might really be in the midst of a crisis?
Amit: Not that I would call them a challenge, but we do face people who regularly call us, and there are people who regularly call us and actually text us and chat with us, and there might be different reasons that they do that.
We are not a substitute for provision of mental health counseling, but there are some people who don’t have access to that type of mental health treatment that they need, and so we actually are there for people who will reach out to us at various times. Sometimes they’re people who are really going through a very, very difficult time, and they’ll reach out to us every single day. We have certain ways that we want to make sure that we’re properly treating them and that we are appropriately serving them. But yes, we do have people who reach out to us many, many times; and for us, it’s important to make sure that we are there for people when they are in crisis or suicidal.
Denver: We’ve been talking about that 800 hotline, but as you just alluded to, you have other platforms that people can connect with you. Speak a little bit about those.
Amit: Well, it’s 2019. So young people do still pick up the phone sometimes. We do have many young people who reach out to us by phone, but there are many young people who would never pick up the phone. They want to text and they want to chat. The Trevor Project was actually an early adopter to exploring the world of text and chat for suicide prevention.
We had a big milestone in our organizational history earlier this year. We took those digital crisis services to be 24/7 for the first time earlier this year. That’s really important because, especially for our population, if you’re a young person, you’re 14 years old, you’re in your bedroom and you need help at 2:00 a.m. when it could be a really dangerous time of night, you may not feel safe picking up the phone because your parents might hear you. But in your bed, you can text; you can chat from your phone.
We also know that there are certain parts of the population that we serve – transgender and non-binary youth and female-identified youth – who prefer digital crisis services over phone. So that’s what we really have been working on, building out that program. We want to make sure that we can meet young people wherever and whatever they are.
…one of the early applications that we’re going to be looking at is: How can we identify more quickly in a conversation, especially on our digital conversations where there’s text… how can we identify there whether someone is at higher risk of suicide? And if there is a queue, and people have a wait time to get there, how can we make sure that we are prioritizing the people that are higher risk?
…there are ways that we think we can use machine learning and AI to more rapidly identify those highest risk people, and that one minute… a couple of minutes, that could be the difference between life and death for some people.
Denver: What are you doing in the realm of AI and machine learning to better serve the young people?
Amit: That’s a very exciting area of opportunity for us. We are just starting to build out a program to really make sure we’re leveraging technology for good. We just received a major grant from Google – we won part of their AI social good competition – and we’re going to be using machine learning and AI to help improve our quality of care for young people.
So, one of the early applications that we’re going to be looking at is: How can we identify more quickly in a conversation, especially on our digital conversations where there’s text… how can we identify there whether someone is at higher risk of suicide? And if there is a queue and people have a wait time to get there, how can we make sure that we are prioritizing the people that are higher risk? We ask people that. We perform a risk assessment, but there are ways that we think we can use machine learning and AI to more rapidly identify those highest risk people, and that one minute… a couple of minutes, that could be the difference between life and death for some people.
Denver: That’s fantastic. How does The Trevor Project work in the schools?
Amit: We have an education program. We provide LGBTQ-competent suicide prevention trainings in schools for youth-facing adults. We talked about how suicide is a public health crisis in this country, but there is very, very little government investment in suicide prevention and very little in schools. As we said, it’s a thing that sometimes people are afraid to talk about. So, in some cases, we are providing LGBTQ-competent suicide prevention trainings, but in some places, that’s the only suicide prevention trainings that are available in those schools.
So it’s a program that we think is really important because it’s a way that we can help end suicide among LGBTQ youth by trying to build support systems in schools and other places where young people are.
Denver: How do you go about measuring your impact?
Amit: We measure our impact in a number of different ways. It’s interesting because before I became CEO, there was actually a big discussion on the board of The Trevor Project of having an independent evaluation of The Trevor Project’s crisis services that had never actually been done before. As you know, there are a lot of nonprofits that, in decades of existence, have never actually measured whether the work that they do has an impact.
Denver: Maybe afraid to find out.
Amit: I think it can be scary, and I think it was a little scary for the Trevor Project.
So, the Trevor Project worked with academic researchers to conduct an independent evaluation of its crisis services on phone, text, and chat. The key finding from that independent evaluation was that 90% of the young people that the Trevor Project serves on its crisis services see a significant reduction in their suicidal ideation. Not only right at the point of contact, but the researchers actually followed up several weeks later, and they found that that impact persisted. So, it actually turned out to be a higher impact than I think the organization expected.
I think validating for The Trevor Project, but I also think for people listening, I just think it is so important that they we look at the data and actually measure: We feel good about what we’re doing, but is what we’re doing actually working? It’s so important. Because if it’s not, you will need to know that so you can adjust and figure out ways that you can improve. And even within that evaluation, a really great top line finding – when you do evaluation, you find opportunities for things that you can improve in.
Conversion therapy is the dangerous and completely discredited practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or their gender identity. It does not work. It is harmful. It actually puts people at much higher risk of suicide, and we are working to end it once and for all.
Denver: That’s great to hear because I think in so many organizations, the way this is often discussed is that you need to do it for funding, but really that’s secondary to getting better at what you do and being more effective. It just seems to be the right priority that you have.
Let me ask you about conversion therapy because some people may not know what that is and some of your advocacy efforts that relate to it.
Amit: We have a small but mighty advocacy team, and conversion therapy is really one of our top advocacy priorities.
For those that don’t know, conversion therapy is the dangerous and completely discredited practice of trying to change someone’s sexual orientation or their gender identity. It does not work. It is harmful. It actually puts people at much higher risk of suicide, and we are working to end it once and for all.
But it is still very common. I think most people think: Did this go out in the Middle Ages or in the 1950s? There are 32 states in the United States where it is still legal to try to have a licensed clinician put a young person through a conversion therapy. That’s wrong. Every organization – the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, every mental health organization says that doesn’t work.
And so, we have a campaign 50 Bills 50 States to end conversion therapy everywhere. There’s been a lot of success in recent years. So, in 18 states, the legislatures have passed bans; that number was zero a decade ago. But we have 32 states to go.
Denver: A lot more to do.
Amit: A lot more to do, and we estimate that there are 700,000 people in this country who have undergone conversion therapy. So we’re working with our many partners across the country to ensure that we can protect all LGBTQ young people from this essentially form of torture.
…it’s really gratifying to see how many young people and how many adults who are not necessarily LGBTQ but just care about LGBTQ young people, send in amounts — $50, $100. And when you see a note from a fifth-grader who’s sending in $25 and saying, “This is just so important. I want to make sure all young people feel supported,” it’s really amazing.
Denver: Speak a little bit about your business model and who some of your major supporters are.
Amit: So we have a diversified funding model.
Denver: That’s always the best.
Amit: So, right now, our primary sources of funding are actually from small individual donors and from corporations. It’s interesting actually. Our major gift program is not as strong as we would like it to be; we’re working to build it out more. But it’s really gratifying to see how many young people and how many adults who are not necessarily LGBTQ but just care about LGBTQ young people send in amounts– $50, $100. And when you see a note from a fifth-grader who’s sending in $25 and saying, “This is just so important. I want to make sure all young people feel supported,” it’s really amazing.
Denver: It made your day.
Amit: It makes your day, and it actually gives you confidence that the future is brighter than we might otherwise think because seeing young people just put what is for them a massive amount of money.
So we really work on engaging donors across the country at all levels. We have a major donor program. We work with companies. We really try to partner with companies that are invested in our mission and that are focused on not just supporting us financially, which is so important, but also helping to spread awareness, and we’ve had some partnerships that have been really exciting.
Just to highlight a few of them, we’ve been working with Macy’s. Macy’s in their stores has been doing a round-up at the register. It’s been so incredible to see a brand like Macy’s putting LGBTQ youth and suicide prevention front and center, working with their employees so that they can speak to customers about what’s been going on. And so, it’s been raising a lot of awareness and funds. AT&T is a major supporter that helped us go 24/7 on our digital crisis services. We’ve done a lot of work with Abercrombie & Fitch, which has done a lot of really interesting promotion on showing a really diverse section of the LGBTQ community, people of different genders and races and ethnic backgrounds and body sizes, to really show LGBTQ that they are seen and heard and loved.
One of the really unique things about The Trevor Project is that we come in every day to save lives of people, and every single person at the organization, no matter what their job is, is helping to save the lives of young people.
It’s a different feeling when you’re coming in and knowing that we are there for young people at their darkest moments.
Denver: What’s it like to work at The Trevor Project? What is unique about your corporate culture that makes it a special place for people to show up every morning?
Amit: One of the really unique things about The Trevor Project is that we come in every day to save lives of people, and every single person at the organization, no matter what their job is, is helping to save the lives of young people. That’s an incredible privilege. I don’t take that for granted. I don’t think anyone on our team takes that for granted. I’ve worked at other places that I loved working and that were amazing. It’s a different feeling when you’re coming in and knowing that we are there for young people at their darkest moments.
Some of the things about our culture: We really want to make sure that we have a culture that is focused on impact; We’re a fast-paced culture; We’re a data-driven, evidence-informed culture. We’re also a culture that really cares a lot about making sure that our employees feel safe and supported, and they have the opportunity to grow.
As someone who came from the for-profit world, I often hear people who sort of think of the nonprofit and for-profit world as being very opposed. You hear people in the nonprofit space sometimes put down the for-profit space, or the for-profit space put down the nonprofit space.
Denver: We all hear it.
Amit: In my view, I think both sectors have a lot to learn from each other. I think the best places, the highest performing cultures I’ve seen are the ones that are really focused on impact and being evidence-based and data-informed, which I think sometimes people only associate with the for-profit space. And I think the best working places are ones where people bring their whole heart and their whole selves, that are really driven by passion and emotion, which I think people often associate with the nonprofit space.
And at Trevor Project, we are really trying to meld those two together to make sure we have people who are the smartest, most brilliant, but also the most passionate and big-hearted people you can imagine, and that’s the culture that I feel really privileged to come into work every day at.
Denver: Let me close with this, Amit, and I really want to pick up on something you said before. And that was the thing that you most feared and caused you the greatest stress in your life has ended up being your life’s work. How does that experience inform the way you go about your job?
Amit: I think it’s both simultaneously incredibly rewarding, and it makes me feel just so lucky to be in a place and in a country and a time where I can be open and supported for who I am. I think it also makes me feel a lot of pressure and a high bar because even as we are talking right now in New York City, where I feel safe walking on the streets and being who I am, we know that there are so many people in parts of the world where they are not safe doing that.
There are many people here in the United States who are still not safe being who they are and being open about their identity. Some of the statistics we’ve talked about, particularly around transgender and non-binary people, it is still not safe for them to be who they are in so many parts of the country. And that’s why we exist – to make sure that we can change that, and make sure every young person knows that they are not alone, that they are beautiful the way they are, and that they can always turn to The Trevor Project for help and support.
Denver: Well, Amit Paley, the CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. For those who might be in need of someone to talk or reach out to, how can they connect with The Trevor Project? And for those who want to become involved in the organization, perhaps as a volunteer or finally supporting it, what do they need to do?
Amit: If you are a young person or know a young person who needs help and support from The Trevor Project, they can reach out by phone at 1-866-4UTREVO (1-866-488-7386). They can reach out by texting 678678. You can connect to our chat service by going to our website, which is www.thetrevorproject.org, and we also run other platforms and services that you can find on our website as well.
If you are a person who is interested in getting involved as a volunteer, there is also information on our website on how you can sign up to do that. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience.
If you’re interested in supporting us financially as a donor and just finding out more information, you can also do that by going to our website. We are looking to grow this community of people who are interested in being there and standing up for LGBTQ youth.
Denver: Well, thanks, Amit. It was great to have you on the show.
Amit: Thank you so much. Great being with you.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.