New group therapy for LGBTQ+ teens in Pittsburgh begins at UPMC

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Being a teenager is tough. Being a teenager in the LGBTQ+ community can feel isolated or even scary. This is what prompted Layne Filio, a behavioral health therapist at UPMC, to create a 10-week group therapy program for children ages 13-18 at UPMC Western Behavioral Health.

Teens can meet in person or virtually to discuss topics such as coming out, gender identity, body positivity and distress tolerance with their peers and counselors. The group was a target for Filio, who introduced the program to UPMC during his job interview in February 2021.

“There aren’t a lot of group therapy options for LGBT youth in Pittsburgh,” Filio says. “I think there should be more. As a member of the community, if I was a teenager and this group was available, I would have really wanted to do this.

The disparity in Mental Health the struggles between LGBTQ+ teens and the general population are staggering. According to a 2022 survey by the LGBTQ+ crisis response group The Trevor Project, 73% of LGBTQ youth report experiencing symptoms of anxiety and 58% suffer from depression. Only about 17% of young people in general have a mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Olivia Leonard, another behavioral health therapist and program counselor, says society could be to blame for the discrepancy.

“There are so many inherent biases that people have and treat others with,” Leonard says. “When you’re part of a minority population that’s often abused, it really causes mental health rates to skyrocket.”

Even if someone has assertive parents, they are often bullied as soon as they go to school, Filio says. For now, the program will focus on children whose parents know and at least support their child’s LGBTQ+ identity, as therapy should be billed through a parent or guardian’s insurance. Eventually, however, UPMC would like to find a way to offer the program to any teen over the age of 14, which is the legal age of consent for mental health treatment in Pennsylvania.

Filio and Leonard met with people from the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation to get more professional insight into what children in this demographic might need, Filio says. Each week will feature a central topic of discussion, such as how to create a safe plan for going out. Counselors will share cognitive behavioral therapy techniques such as thought journals and cognitive restructuring to teach children how to best deal with negative thoughts and stress.

Talking about traumatic experiences is part of therapy, Filio says, but there’s also a place for positivity.

“We focus on strength and how that can create really strong, impressive individuals,” says Filio. “It’s important to focus on the positive things that can come from difficult experiences.”

Although the first 10-week session is no longer accepting new clients, anyone interested in joining the next group should contact Mary Lou Wetzel at UPMC Western Behavioral Health at 412-246-5218 or UPMC has yet to announce when the next group will begin.

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