Homosexuality was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders in 1973. Nevertheless, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community faces more mental health challenges than the general population: LGBT Australians are twice as likely to experience high levels of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers, and six times as likely to attempt suicide.
It’s important to note that being LGBT itself doesn’t cause these higher levels of depression and anxiety. They’re a by-product of living in an unsupportive society, a phenomenon called minority stress.
With Mardi Gras season around the corner, there’s plenty for LGBT Australians to celebrate. But recent criticism of Victoria’s Safe Schools program and two violent hate crimes in Sydney show that life isn’t always easy for LGBT Australians. Below are some tips for supporting yourself or LGBT friends through the challenges that lead to minority stress.
Coming out – and inviting in
“Coming out of the closet” – or “coming out”, for short – is a phrase that describes LGBT people telling others about their sexual or gender identity. It can be a stressful and upsetting process for a lot of LGBT people, especially if their friends or family react badly.
It’s becoming increasingly common to think about “inviting in” instead. It reflects the idea of asking those closest to you to share in a private but important part of yourself. If someone you know invites you into their life like this, try to realise that this means they trust you and think you are an important part of their life. Be sure to respect their decision about who else they invite into their life – it isn’t your business to tell what they’ve shared with you to anyone else without their permission.
Asking questions – and giving answers
When you learn a friend is LGBT, it’s only natural to be curious. Sometimes, it’s appropriate to ask questions, but ask yourself if this is a question you would feel comfortable asking a straight friend. Explicit sexual questions aren’t appropriate – your friend’s private life should remain private, unless they decide to share it with you. If you don’t understand what your friend means when they say they are genderqueer or asexual, maybe do some research before asking your friend to clarify a few things. It’s important to make sure they don’t feel they’re being interrogated or forced to explain themselves – be open and respectful.
On the other hand, if you’re an LGBT person, you can feel a pressure to educate the world. It’s important to draw boundaries for yourself. If a well-meaning friend’s questions get too personal, perhaps you can suggest looking up an encyclopedia instead.
Humans are social creatures, and we crave contact with people who understand us. If your friend is LGBT and you aren’t, don’t forget that you still have plenty to talk about: movies, food, music, politics, books, whatever. Your friend’s sexual or gender identity is a very small part of what makes up their personality. Don’t let it overshadow their other qualities. When people first come out, they can often worry that it will change their existing relationships. Show them that isn’t the case by being the same friend, brother, father, and so on that you’ve always been.
However, if you are LGBT, don’t underestimate the importance of connecting with the local LGBT community. Writer Rebecca Shaw shares her experience:
I have always had more straight friends than gay friends. I feel totally comfortable around heterosexual people, especially the wonderful ones I choose as my friends. And yet, on the rare times I am at a gay bar, or at a pride event, or somewhere that I am in the majority, it feels different. And it feels nice. It is hard to explain, but it is almost like a weight is lifted. For brief moments, every single cell that makes up me knows that I am completely safe. Not only safe, but also accepted. I can’t be judged, I won’t be assumed to be straight, I won’t be asked questions, I won’t have a slur thrown at me, I won’t have a man hitting on me, I won’t make anyone uncomfortable by being me. I just am.
Contact with other people in the LGBT community is an important way to protect yourself from the negative effects of minority stress. As Shaw says, spaces created by and for LGBT people can offer unconditional, unquestioning support. Mardi Gras is an especially great time to visit these spaces and enjoy the community spirit!
Asking for help
As we mentioned, LGBT Australians are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and a range of other mental health concerns. Because many LGBT Australians have lived with these problems for so long, they begin to accept them as normal. This doesn’t have to be the case. At the Institute for Healthy Living, we are proud to welcome people of diverse sexual and gender identities. Sometimes, our clients want to discuss issues related to their sexual or gender identity. Sometimes, they’re dealing with stress at work or other unrelated issues. Whatever their concerns, it’s important to us that they know we welcome and support them, exactly as they are.
If you’re the friend of an LGBT person, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on in your friend’s life. LGBT people can become accustomed to living with high levels of depression and anxiety. Try to notice if this is causing problems for your friend, and offer them your support or suggest they see a psychologist.
Remember, if you are worried about your safety or the safety of a friend or family member at any time, you can call the Eastern Suburbs Acute Care Team for immediate support on 1800 011 511.