According to the LGBT Foundation, LGBT people are twice as likely as their straight counterparts to experience suicidal thoughts and feelings (according to Young Minds, 44% of young LGBT people have considered suicide). LGBT people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to suffer from depression. And according to various sources, between 40% and 50% of young LGBT people self-harm.
There are so many factors involved in this: homophobic bullying, societal and familial pressure to “conform”, negative perceptions of LGBT people in society. Things have changed, people say. Things are not as bad now as they were in the past. Yes. I agree. Things have improved. But with statistics of mental health problems so disproportionately high for LGBT people, can we honestly say that they have improved enough?
On top of this, you have to understand that the mental health system—in which many LGBT people find themselves because of the abovementioned problems—is not always very LGBT friendly. I read once about an LGBT care home for older people in Brighton. A few people said that it isn’t necessary to “segregate” LGBT older people from their heterosexual peers. And indeed, it shouldn’t be. In an ideal world there should be no need to even consider this. But this isn’t an ideal world. The truth is that within these peoples’ lifetimes, being gay has been illegal. Can you really blame someone for wanting to be around people who might be more accepting?
Meanwhile in the mental health system (in fact, the health system in general), LGBT people face discrimination and, more often, are faced with a simple lack of understanding. I am one of the above statistics: I am a lesbian, I have a mental health problem and for years I self-harmed. I am not going to speak for everyone and I am well aware, writing this, that millions of people have gone through much, much worse things than I have been through. I can only talk about my experiences, and these are they:
At fourteen, I was in hospital receiving treatment for suicidal ideation/ intentions/ attempts. I tried speaking with one of the nurses there about my feelings. “How can you be a lesbian?” she said. “Have you been in a relationship with a woman?” I said no, and that was the end of the conversation. “You’ll meet a nice man one day, get married, have children and forget all this nonsense,” she told me. At the same hospital there was another nurse who I believe was a lesbian herself. Put off by my first experience, I was very hesitant to mention my own experiences. And as I recall, she was very reticent about her own personal life. She was the first person I ever heard using the word “partner” and she blushed when she said it. The moment passed, she went off shift and we never spoke again.
If a society can make a nurse feel uneasy about coming out in the workplace, how much more of a disaster is this for the LGBT patients who in turn learn not to talk about themselves? I came out at work not that long ago and since then the rapport I have had with some of the residents (who identify as B or G) has built rapidly. I think they find that they can trust me not to judge on certain topics, and that we naturally have something in common which makes it easier for them to open up on the subject. It wasn’t an easy decision to come out and, in fact, it was a decision largely made for me by overheard comments and shady answers to direct questions. But I am glad, so glad, that I did. If it helps even one person to feel less alone, it’s worth it. Mental health services are there, in part, to let people know that they are not alone. If we can’t even talk about ourselves, how are we going to make that happen?
When I was at school, Section 28 (which states that “a local authority shall not promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”) was still in place. Professionals working with children and vulnerable adults were edgy about getting into trouble. A teacher once told me that “we’re not allowed to teach you that” to which angry seventeen-year-old me responded “Section 28 is dead” (I think it actually had been repealed by then). Imagine not even being allowed to talk about something so important? Leaving people vulnerable to the doubts they have, the stereotypes they have built up in their heads, the in-built prejudice, the fear? In a school where a child in the playground can say “that is so gay” and a teacher can’t even tell him why that isn’t an insult, how does it feel for the gay kid in the corner when he is told “don’t say that” but it is never explained why? I know how it feels. It feels rubbish.
We need to talk about mental health. And we need to talk about mental health not in a Broad and General Way, but in light of the specificities affecting mental health and mental health services. Race matters. Religion matters. Gender matters. And being LGBT? That certainly matters, too.
(For more about my experiences coming out as a lesbian: Here you go!)