We Need to Talk About LGBTIQ People on World Mental Health Day
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The author of this post about World Mental Health Day, Paul Jansen, is the Senior Advisor for Global Advocacy of OutRight Action International.
October 10 is World Mental Health Day, a day which is all too relevant for our community. No matter how much progress has been made in the recognition of the human rights of LGBTIQ people, we remain among the most marginalized and hated groups in society, facing discrimination, violence and harassment, and too often lacking acceptance even from our family members.
In this context it is no wonder that we experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation compared to the broader population.
Discriminatory attitudes also mean that in too many places affirmative mental health support is not available. And continuing perceptions of us as deviant and pathological — despite homosexuality having been removed from the international classification of diseases in 1990, and transgender identities being removed from the same list last year — lead to a scourge of “conversion therapy” practices which amplify existing mental health challenges while also in and of themselves causing deep, irreparable harm.
In short, we need to talk about LGBTIQ people on World Mental Health Day.
Studies about the mental health of LGBTIQ people predominantly exist in countries which have some legal and policy protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in place, in which societal acceptance levels are broadly positive. Yet even there, the numbers are shocking. In the United States, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, lesbian, gay and bisexual adults are more than twice as likely to experience a mental health condition. Lesbian, gay and bisexual high-school students are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide as their peers, while almost half of all transgender people report having considered suicide in the past 12 months.
In the UK, the situation is similar. Civil society organization Stonewall reports that 52% of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, 67% of trans people, and 70% of non-binary people experienced depression in 2019, 61% of all LGBTIQ people experienced anxiety, and 52% of LGBTIQ people aged 18-24 thought about suicide in the last year.
I’m scared to imagine what number studies would show in the 67 countries which criminalize same-sex relations, or in which active persecution of LGBTIQ people is taking place.
Even in the most LGBTIQ-friendly of countries, affirmative, supportive care can be hard to find. We still come face to face with discriminatory attitudes and even refusal of services in health care. Imagine seeking care for a mental health issue in Nigeria, where same-sex relations are criminalized and “aiding and abetting” LGBTIQ people is illegal; in Russia, where freedom of expression about LGBTIQ topics is banned; or in Indonesia, where mandatory “conversion therapy” has been threatened for LGBTIQ people. In hostile contexts getting affirmative care is practically impossible.
And then there’s “conversion therapy” practices which aim to “cure,” divert or suppress our sexual orientations and gender identities. OutRight issued a report about the practices last year, and we found that they take place everywhere. They vary in their degrees of physical and psychological abuse, they never work, and they always cause deep, lasting harm, amplifying existing mental health issues, and inflicting lasting harm of their own. And, what’s more, mental health practitioners — the very people who should be supporting us to overcome mental health issues — are among the key perpetrators of “conversion therapy,” willingly, and knowingly inflicting psychological and physical harm.
M.A., a survivor of “conversion therapy” in Nigeria told us that “the practice left me broken and scarred,” and that “for most of my life, I have been led astray, had my mind twisted against itself, ran, hidden, filled with fear, struggled against my sexuality. But now I know better. I cannot run away from myself. This must stop.”
M.A. is right. It must stop. “Conversion therapy” is already banned in Brazil, Ecuador, Taiwan, Malta and Germany. These practices should be banned everywhere. And mental health practitioners who offer “conversion therapy” should have their licenses revoked.
Mental health on the whole is stigmatized and not talked about. The mental health of a community often living on the fringes of society, is even more so. OutRight is challenging that this year. Joined by actor Stephen Fry, we will be taking part in the world’s first virtual March for Mental Health. For a whole hour we will talk about mental health challenges of LGBTIQ+ people and, specifically, the harm caused by “conversion therapy” practices.