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Adam Hoffman, assistant professor of psychology, is exploring how LGBTQ+ youth develop social identity and how that process affects their mental health, self-esteem and other outcomes.

He is conducting a three-year study, surveying 200 LGBTQ+ adolescents and young adults in partnership with two community organizations in New York state – the Ali Forney Center in New York City and The Q Center in Syracuse. The surveys will measure identity, community connectedness, feelings of loneliness and isolation and more.

“Identity is important and has implications for youth outcomes – mental health and wellbeing – social well-being, self-esteem, anxiety and depression, and also physical health and academic achievement,” said Hoffman.

Social identities are the ways people align themselves with different social groups. They can include geographical affiliations; familial relations; ethnic, racial and gender identities; and sexual orientation. These identities significantly impact our lives, according to Hoffman. Strong, positive identities – and the resulting higher self-esteem – serve as a buffer against prejudice and negative experiences. By better understanding identities and their formation, Hoffman hopes to promote positive outcomes.

Hoffman’s research is especially relevant amidst the current adolescent and young adult mental health crisis. He said there is a lack of literature surrounding LGBTQ+ youth and how their identities develop in adolescence, which might be a large factor in their mental health.

He collaborated with staff at the Ali Forney Center and The Q Center to develop the scope of his new study. Through those conversations, he identified a key relationship in LGBTQ+ communities: chosen family, or a group of people who are not biologically related, typically peers of the same age or older, who offer a reciprocal relationship of guidance, love and support.

“We talk about family rejection and community rejection,” said Naz Seenauth, deputy executive director of programs at the Ali Forney Center, which focuses on protecting unhoused LGBTQ+ youth. “Folks – myself included as a young person – have lost our communities and lost family. It doesn’t mean they no longer exist, but it means a lot of queer young people find family in other ways.”

Seenauth began their career at the center as a youth counselor and now oversees all programs for youth ages 16-24.

For LGBTQ+ youth, Hoffman predicts that chosen family might shape and develop queer identity, as well as providing community – ultimately leading to better mental health outcomes.

Understanding LGBTQ youth experiences, and particularly those who are unhoused, will help Seenauth and the Ali Forney Center better tailor programs and support services. Collaborating with Hoffman to build this research enabled Seenauth to incorporate important youth perspective.

The partnership also helps the researchers.

“By leveraging this community partnership, we’re able to ensure that we’re asking timely, relevant questions,” said Rob Klein, a Ph.D. student in psychology who is supporting ongoing research at the Ali Forney Center. He said that the research team will share their findings with the Ali Forney Center, including data on how effective their programming is or how mental health issues present in youth.

Hoffman said this research can provide a foundation for future interventions and translational research projects that improve mental health outcomes among queer youth, both at his current partner organizations and beyond.

“One of the other aspects of my research is not just to understand these identities and how they’re developing but also, how can we leverage identities? How can we use them for the good? How can we make them something that’s protective or promotive of outcomes that we want for kids?” said Hoffman.

The study, led by Hoffman through the Promoting Resilience and Identities in Development (PRIDE) Lab, will conclude in 2026.