9th January 2018,
LGBT+ and trauma / mental health: Four Questions Worth Asking
Trauma, mental health issues and addiction are quite common in the LGBT+ community. But for a variety of reasons, the prevalence of these issues is rarely discussed and examined as frankly and openly as it should be.
Trauma, mental health issues and addiction are quite common in the LGBT+ community. But for a variety of reasons, the prevalence of these issues is rarely discussed and examined as frankly and openly as it should be. It’s no wonder that a group so often stigmatized by society at large – people who have historically been labelled as having a psychological disorder because of their sexuality or gender identity – would feel uncomfortable acknowledging that they suffer from a significantly higher rate of mental health issues than the general population. But in order to heal, it’s necessary for us to drag these issues out of the shadows, work openly and publicly to raise awareness, and work towards solutions.
1. Are LGBT+ Persons More Prone to Trauma Than Other Communities?
Yes, yes, yes! While research in this field is relatively new, the vast majority of evidence that has been gathered indicates that LGBT+ people, and youth in particular, are far more likely to experience trauma and a wide range of accompanying symptoms and behaviors. A study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 55% of LGBT+ youth feel unsafe at school, with 74% experiencing verbal harassment and 16% reporting that they had been physically assaulted while attending school. Difficulties with the education system, unaccepting families, and a lack of social support lead to greatly increased rates of homelessness among LGBT+ youth, as studies have shown that 40% of homeless youth are members of the community. As students move on to college and university, trauma and stress still affect the community at higher rates. Studies from Harvard and the University of Michigan have shown that LGBT+ students are significantly more likely to experience sexual assault, and to attempt suicide.
An academic study published by Stephen T. Russel and Jessica N. Fish published in the National Review of Clinical Psychology found that 18% of LGBT+ youth met the criteria for major depression, 11.3% for PTSD, and 31% had exhibited suicidal behavior at some point in adolescence (general population rates are 8.2%, 3.9% and 4.1% respectively). The study’s authors concluded that “in summary, clear and consistent evidence indicates that global mental health problems are elevated among LGBT+ youth.”
2. Why the Disproportionate Numbers?
There is no doubt that grappling with an identity which is far too often stigmatized by peers, parents, teachers, and society at large creates a great deal of stress and anxiety during adolescence. As Delores Jacobs, CEO of the San Diego LGBT Community Center has said, many LGBT+ people “experience higher rates of rejection, bullying, harassment, general mistreatment and even violence from the people and institutions that should be protecting them.” This in turn can lead to constant anxiety and the sense that there is nowhere to turn for help. Victimization, prejudice and discrimination work in tandem to isolate LGBT+ youth, and to push them into harmful situations, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and homelessness. As therapist Amber Rice puts it, these youth are “in chronic anxiety mode. Every day is a battle.” The American Center for Disease Control has concluded that LGBT+ adults have significantly higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders and depression which are “rooted in trauma suffered in childhood and adolescence.”
3. What Stigma Do LGBT+ Individuals Face Addressing Trauma and Mental Health Issues?
While huge strides have been made in society, there is no doubt that antiquated attitudes and views continue to damage and traumatize people in the LGBT+ community. Because of the stigma that exists, many LGBT+ people feel a great deal of pressure to portray themselves and their lifestyles in a positive light. There is a feeling in the community that discussing higher rates of depression, suicide and addiction will give ammunition to recalcitrant homophobes and people who still hold the mistaken belief that homosexuality is some form of mental defect. Matthew Todd, the author of (the brilliant and highly recommended) “Straight Jacket”, a meditation on how identity issues harm gay men, writes that “coming out, what I needed was therapy – not (as the homophobic Christian speaker told me at school) to erase my homosexual inclinations, but to accept and come to terms with them.” Because of the sense that sexual minorities are constantly under attack from society at large, many high-profile organizations try to depict only the positive aspects of LGBT+ culture. This is an understandable but misguided choice. Denying the shame and trauma internalized by so many from such an early age (and the massive internal wounds that result from it) is clearly the wrong decision.
4. What Can Be Done?
There are obviously two answers to this question. In the long-term we need to build a more just and compassionate society that doesn’t shame, abuse, and traumatize young LGBT+ people. But for the millions of people who already have the scars which come with growing up as a member of a stigmatized minority, what can we do? The first step is to acknowledge that we are facing a public health crisis centered around what Todd describes as “the toxic combination of mental distress, drugs and alcohol abuse.” The LGBT+ community needs to raise awareness, both within itself and society at large, of the extent of the trauma which goes hand in hand with growing up as a member of a sexual minority. We need to get over internalized shame, and the fear of re-enforcing negative stereotypes, and shed light on these issues far too many people wrestle with in private desperation. The creation, funding, and maintenance of mental health services that meet the unique challenges of our community is a matter of life and death. Addiction treatment, therapy, counselling and outreach are necessary measures for overcoming the trauma suffered by far too many. Creating services tailored specifically for the community is a necessary step, as many people are rightly skeptical of therapists and counsellors who for far too long saw homosexuality and gender dysphoria as defects to be de-programmed or medicated away. It is essential that gay and trans people take control of their own mental health, and heal each other.