It should come as no surprise that the LGBTQ community is among one of the highest at-risk groups to suffer from mental illness. And while many individuals do have similar needs to non-LGBTQ individuals, there are those areas of concern directly related to being a member of this community.
Although a person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity may not always cause distress, it is very common for LGBTQ individuals to experience an elevated level of stress, anxiety and depression, which often stems from the social stigma of being a minority group.
According to goodtherapy.org, “LGBTQ individuals seek therapy at a higher rate than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.”
What issues do LGBTQ individuals face regarding mental health concerns that might differ from non-LGBTQ individuals?
Confusion about sexual orientation can play a major role in an individual’s mental health. Struggling (in many cases alone) with confusion about sexual identity can cause an increased level of anxiety. This is also very true when someone is considering coming out.
Coming out can be one of the most frightening things a person ever does. Many people fear repercussions and are often very reluctant to share this part of themselves.
“The most common reason LGBTQ individuals were or are apprehensive to come out is familial tension, isolation, or estrangement,” says Dr. Evan Goldstein in his article, “The Experience of Coming Out,” published on bespokesurgical.com in 2014.
Unfortunately, it’s quite common for individuals to react negatively to the coming out (whether it be gender identity or sexual orientation) of a family member. This often leads to homelessness, which greatly contributes to the growing number of LGBTQ homeless youth today.
“Serving Our Youth,” a 2015 publication from The Williams Institute available at williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu, reports that “homelessness among LGB youth is a major problem in the U.S. Although LGB (sexual minority) people comprise two to seven percent of the population, about one-third of homeless youth identify as LGB or questioning.”
Additionally, “4 percent of homeless youth identify as transgender, compared with 1 percent of the general youth population in the U.S.,” the publication reports. “LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk for homelessness than are cisgender (gender identity matches with the assigned sex at birth), heterosexual youth.”
Gender dysphoria (a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress due to not identifying with their assigned gender-at-birth) is a sensitive issue not to be taken lightly. The delicate situation requires special consideration, as individuals may experience a host of issues that pose a significant risk to their mental health.
Without clinical intervention, gender dysphoria can lead to dangerously high levels of depression that can quickly manifest into suicidal thoughts and ideation.
“Forty percent of transgender adults have attempted suicide during their lifetime, compared to less than 5 percent of the U.S. population as a whole,” according to the U.S. Transgender Survey in 2016.
Since its founding in 1998, The Trevor Project has played a major role in the LGBTQ community’s fight against mental illness. The national leading nonprofit organization provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth who are under the age of 25.
According to the organization’s website at thetrevorproject.org, “The Trevor Project offers accredited life-saving, life-affirming programs and services to LGBTQ youth that create safe, accepting and inclusive environments over the phone, online and through text.”
The growing number of non-traditional and blended families are being accompanied by an increase of mental health concerns. Same-sex parents may experience challenges with social acceptance. And, although same-sex marriages have been legalized in the U.S., several forms of legal discrimination still exist.
The LGBTQ community has experienced some positive change regarding awareness, cultural sensitivity and acceptance. However, there is still a lingering culture of discrimination and oppression toward diverse family dynamics.
In a 2014 study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, it was found that “LGBTQ people who live in communities with more stigmatizing attitudes about their sexual orientation die an average of 12 years earlier than LGBTQ people in the least-prejudiced communities.”
“Issues that arise in lesbian and gay-parented families are a function of two things,” says clinical psychologist April Martin. “One is the rich variety of family constellations they comprise, and the other is the fact that they are living in a society which does not yet value rich variety. The tension created by this situation generates unique needs for the approximately 5 million gay and lesbian parents in this country whenever they present themselves to the legal system, the educational system, the mental health profession, religious organizations, the medical profession, or the insurance industry”
The mental health needs surrounding the LGBTQ community can be very challenging and complex. Finding a therapist who’s experienced in working with this unique demographic can greatly impact the treatment outcome.
“Many LGBTQ people arrive in therapy with an extra layer of trauma and shame related to their sexual orientation or gender identity and the ways in which that orientation/identity has been responded to by their families and/or society,” says Robert Weiss in his article, “Understanding LGBTQ Affirmative Psychotherapy” published on psychcentral.com in 2014.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) states that, “many will experience prejudice based on their sexual and/or gender identity as well as the stigma associated with mental illness. Confronting these challenges and mental health symptoms with an LGBTQ-inclusive therapist can lead to better outcomes, and even recovery.”
Regardless of what issues an individual may be experiencing, it is very important to find the right treatment and support necessary to live a happy and healthy life.
“Early intervention, comprehensive treatment, and family support are key to helping LGBTQ people live well with a mental health condition,” states NAMI.
Due to fear of discrimination, another factor affecting the mental health of LGBTQ individuals is the apprehension to seek out therapy.
According to goodtherapy.org, “one of the greatest barriers that LGBTQ people experience in accessing mental health care is the anticipation of and experience of discrimination.”
In an attempt to combat these types of deterrents, a treatment approach focused on validation and advocacy was developed.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov), “affirmative therapy is a type of psychotherapy used to validate and advocate for the needs of sexual and gender minority clients. Therapists use verbal and nonverbal means to demonstrate an affirming stance toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) clients.”
In a New York Times 2016 interview, Ian Jensen, then an Antioch University student, discussed how his experience with affirmative therapy was life changing.
“Having a gay-affirmative therapist really changed my life in a lot of ways,” Jensen says. “Just like my straight friends, only I’m attracted to men. But what I found out is that there’s a deeper level of experiencing what it means to be a gay person than just my sexual identity,” he added.