Mental Health Awareness and the LGBT Community
The Jewish community tends to think of October as the month to recuperate from the High Holy Days, but October is also the National Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health and mental health coverage are critical issues for millions of Americans, but there are a number of overlooked issues including the serious mental health concerns confronting the LGBT community.
These issues may be frequently neglected in mental health discussions because of the risk of suggesting that queerness is, in itself, a mental illness or necessarily leads to mental illness. Most famously, the American Psychiatric Association listed “homosexuality” as a mental disorder until 1973. Today, however, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states, “First and foremost, however, we must remember that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is not a mental illness in and of itself. Just because someone is LGBT doesn’t automatically mean that they will experience a mental illness… However, LGBT people may face unique risks to their mental health and well-being, which mental health providers should be aware of.”
The report from NAMI continues by citing a study which found that LGB people (transgender people were not included in the study, however other studies have found significantly higher rates in the transgender community) were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from a serious mental illness than their heterosexual counterpart. Another study found that LGBT youth were four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. And LGBT youth make up 20-40% of the population of homeless youth. These studies cite bullying, family rejection, and internalized homophobia and heterosexism as the primary causes of mental illness in the LGBT community.
These are disturbing and depressing statistics and they should be cause for alarm. However, we can also find hope as these leading causes of suicide are wholly preventable. Bullying of LGBT youth has gained attention through the national It Gets Better Project and anti-bullying groups have emerged all around the country. Beyond that, two pieces of legislation are currently before Congress: the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would create a national definition of bullying and a mechanism for collecting data on it, and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would allow LGBT students to litigate against discrimination they face in schools. Tell your representatives in Congress to stand up for LGBT youth and support the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
Family rejection can be counteracted by helping LGBT youth maintain and redevelop relationships with receptive family members. It can also be done by creating alternative family-like support networks through friends, teachers and mentors. The National Alliance to End Homelessness has found that LGBT youth who do not have that support network are eight times more likely to attempt suicide and six times more likely to report high levels of depression than LGBT youth who do (yes, that means LGBT youth who are rejected by their family are 32 times more likely to attempt suicide and 15 times more likely to report depression then heterosexual youth). Thus a considerable difference can be made by being that friend or family member that chooses to accept an LGBT youth. (For those LGBT people who do not have a support network, there are still options out there – the Trevor Project is one group that provides critical services to LGBT people in need.)
Finally, we can all work to combat the homophobia and heterosexism in society that has such a profound effect on LGBT people. We can do this by changing are hearts and our minds, which is an important step. But, perhaps more importantly, we can do this by changing our laws, our social structures and our practices. Mental Health Awareness Month provides us with an opportunity to make progress toward the goal of full LGBT acceptance and equality.
Image courtesy of Northern Ontario Business Association