Mental health disorders are huge issues for the LGBT Community. In this post, I’ll look at how the LGBT population are affected in comparison to the heterosexual population, I’ll look at some of the reasons why, and finish on some recommendation for what can be done.
According to a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONI) in 2016, just over 2% of the population of the UK (about 1 million people) identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The rate is highest in Scotland, where 2.2% of the Scottish population identify as LGB.
16-24-year-olds are the most likely to identify, with more males (2.3%) compared to females (1.6%) belonging to the LGBT community.
Lesbian, gay or bisexual people are the most likely to be single, never married or civil partnered, at 70.7%. The ONI report suggested that this was probably because of the younger age range of the LGBT population, and the fact that legal unions are relatively new.
However, this could be one of the reasons for why the LGBT Community are affected disproportionately by mental health disorders – a group that is single or who never enter into a long term, monogamous legal union are likely to suffer much more from severe loneliness, which has a huge effect on depression rates.
More males identify as gay than bisexual (1.7% compared to 0.6%) whereas more females identify as bisexual than gay (0.9% compared to 0.7%). This may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if there is a link between more males identifying as gay and the higher rates or male suicide. According to the Samaritans, men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.
A study in the Lancet looked at the rate of mental health disorders in the people from the age of 10 who identified as being part of the LGBT Community. They found that the 10-year-olds who classed as “sexual minorities” were more likely to experience mental ill health, and rates of mental ill health increased at a faster rate with age compared to their heterosexual peers.
The report noted in its conclusions that “[m]ental health disparities between heterosexuals and sexual minorities are present early in adolescence and increase throughout the school years persisting to young adulthood. Prevention of these mental health problems and early intervention must be a priority.”
Stonewall, a UK based charity that campaigns for equality for LGBT people, commissioned YouGov to survey people in the UK who identified as LGBT to find out about their mental health. Of the 5000 people that were surveyed, the key points include:
- 52% of LGBT people experienced depression in the last year, compared to only about 16% of the general population.
- 52% of the LGBT community reported thinking about suicide in the last year, compared to only about 5% of the population in general.
- 13% of the LGBT community attempted to take their own life in the last year, compared with only 1% of the population as a whole.
The LGBT Community also has a difficult relationship with healthcare. 14% of LGBT people avoid seeking healthcare for fear of discrimination from staff, with 13% actually experiencing some form of unequal treatment.
There is one other quite alarming statistic. Despite all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies, as well as the NHS, condemning conversion therapies and declaring them dangerous, 5% of LGBT people have been pressured to access services to question or change their sexual orientation whilst accessing healthcare.
So why are rates of mental ill health so high in the LGBT Community? There are many reasons, only a few I’ll talk about here.
Domestic abuse can happen to anyone
Stonewall research says that 25% of lesbian or bisexual women have experienced domestic abuse, and almost half (49%) of gay or bisexual men have experienced abuse from a family member or partner since the age of 16. The Scottish Transgender Alliance says that 80% of trans people have experienced some form of domestic abuse from a partner or ex-partner.
According to Galop, a charity that focuses on LGBT hate crime, 98 hate crimes against the LGBT Community are reported a week around the UK. The research suggests that about half of homophobic and transphobic crimes aren’t reported to the police, meaning that many people suffer in silence. Suffering in silence is never the answer.
As I’ve discussed above, many LGBT people are very wary about engaging with healthcare due to fear (potentially legitimately) of discrimination from healthcare staff. This can exacerbate mental health conditions, due to a combination of a lack of treatment and constant levels of fear and stress.
Shame is a huge player in mental health disorders. The main difference between shame and guilt is this: guilt focuses on behaviour, shame focuses on self. Guilt says “I did something bad,” shame says “I am bad.”
From personal experience, growing up gay has gone hand in hand with shame, which has had a huge impact on my mental health. When we culturally tell LGBT people that who they are is something that is classed as “other,” that they are too camp, that being gay is wrong, we cause huge amounts and shame and damage.
I don’t want to give the impression that issues around mental health are simple and binary, when in fact they tend to be complicated and nuanced.
Seeing people with severe mental health conditions getting fresh air and spending time with friends are great in theory, but from personal experience, being told to just go for a walk when I feel horrific is like being asked to fly.
In looking at next steps, therefore, I’ll look more broadly at what we can do on a societal or cultural level, instead of on a more personal level.
Young LGBT people need better role models and increased mentorship. Throughout our entire lives, our ideas about the world as a whole come from everything we experience – from what we see on TV, what we read, what we’re told by family or friends.
The media is full of role models for straight young people (whether some of those role models are particularly good with regards to toxic masculinity or teaching body positivity is another topic). This is also known as “heteronormativity” – the media is focussed on straight people, straight characters and straight relationships, enforcing the idea that you’re straight unless proven otherwise.
LGBT relationships are the exceptions instead of the norm, and when programmes do showcase LGBT people or relationships, it’s highlighted as an exception to be paid lots of attention to, instead of a normal part of everyday life.
It is important to ensure that LGBT characters are given to LGBT actors – The Danish Girl, a 2015 biographical drama, caused some controversy with casting Eddie Redmayne, a straight, cisgendered actor in the role of a trans woman. If a trans actor were cast in this role, it would provide a role model for trans young people, to show that barriers are becoming less and less relevant.
In the same Stonewall research that I looked at above, they had some further recommendations in terms of healthcare. These included:
- Increased training and guidance is required for healthcare staff to help LGBT people.
- Patients’ sexual orientation and gender identity need to be constantly monitored to identify and tackle inequalities in LGBT patient experiences and outcomes, developing targeted services and initiatives to address these.
- LGBT-inclusive information and resources should be readily available for patients.
Levels of mental ill health in the LGBT Community are sky high. This could be from a range of reasons, from loneliness, lack of positive role models and mentors, poor relationships with family, a fear of healthcare and abuse and assault.
However, there are plenty of ways to help.
Education is a huge way of helping. Education for healthcare staff, education for LGBT people themselves and education for everyone on how to interact and relate to LGBT people in a healthy and constructive way. In the words of Tony Blair in 1997, “Education, education, education!”
Finally, as the author and speaker Brene Brown says in one of her Ted Talks, empathy is the best antidote to shame. Shame needs secrecy, silence and judgment to grow, but when doused with empathy, it cannot survive.
We need to be vulnerable with each other. I am hugely inspired by hearing the stories of other people who have persevered through their struggles with figuring out their sexuality and coming out the other side.
I am hugely comforted when I realise that I am not the only one who has to deal with these issues – that I am not alone. That other people understand.
The most powerful words that can be said to someone in struggle – “me too.”