Nearly 20 percent of the adult U.S. population lives with a mental health condition, and LGBTQIA+ individuals are nearly three times as likely to be part of that group. The societal stigma surrounding mental health disorders and the prejudice against LGBTQIA+ individuals based on their identity are still pervasive problems, causing many individuals to not seek help or treatment. It is important to recognize the facts about mental health within LGBTQIA+ communities, eliminate stigma, and find a way to bring help to those who need it.
"Like with any identity, feeling different—or worse, unaccepted as you are—is a significant risk factor for mental health struggles," says Anna Docherty, PhD, LP, [JS2] assistant professor of psychiatry with Huntsman Mental Health Institute at University of Utah Health.
"The truth is, most of us experience some significant anxiety or depression in our lifetimes, and we often manage this with social support," Docherty says. "Mental health is quite difficult to maintain without adequate social support and acceptance. Increasing dialogue about LGBTQIA+ experiences and how individuals overcome struggles can help normalize and validate what individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+ are managing. Importantly, this can also lead to community education, acceptance, social support, peer mentoring, empowerment, and pride."
Members of the LGBTQIA+ community who are dealing with mental health concerns face stigma on multiple fronts. "In every U.S. state, there are unique social and cultural factors that influence these experiences of alienation, isolation, and stigma," Docherty says. "And experiences like a pandemic or other major situational stressors can certainly compound these factors."
Prejudice and stigma around sexual orientation and identity have been improving slowly over time, but we still have a long way to go. Here are a few statistics according to research done by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
- A majority of LGBTQIA+ people say that they or an LGBTQIA+ friend or family member have been threatened or non-sexually harassed. A majority (51 percent) of LGBTQIA+ people say that they have experienced violence because of their sexuality or gender identity.
- Fifty-nine percent of LGBTQIA+ people feel that they have fewer employment opportunities, and 50 percent believe they are paid less than non-LGBTQIA+ people.
- Thirty-eight percent of transgender people say they have experienced slurs, and 28 percent have experienced insensitive or offensive comments because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Twenty-two percent of transgender individuals say they have avoided doctors or health care out of concern they would be discriminated against.
Eliminating stigma and changing perceptions
"Many individuals still experience alienation, isolation, and stigma," Docherty says. "Like anyone, individuals who experience alienation, isolation, or stigma can be at risk for mental health concerns." So how do people show support for someone who is struggling? When connecting with those who identify as LGBTQIA+, it is important to use non-stigmatizing language when speaking and writing. Below is some of the language Docherty recommends:
- "Instead of 'disorder' or 'illness,' use the terms 'condition' or 'concern,'" Docherty says. "Sometimes I refer to 'struggles' because that's what they are! And people relate to this."
- "Instead of 'psychiatric,' we sometimes prefer 'mental health.'"
- "Most of us try to use person-first language in our practice and in writing about a community like this one. For example, instead of 'LGBTQIA+ youth,' we might say 'younger individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+.'"
- "We also use recovery-oriented language whenever possible, in the practice of 'stigma-busting': Instead of the term 'schizophrenic,' we would say, 'person managing schizophrenia' (or anxiety, or OCD, or any other struggle)."
How to be an advocate and an ally
To help create a welcoming and inclusive environment, each of us must work to become an ally and an advocate. Here are some ways that you can help:
- Be open and honest: Speak freely about your own mental health and your own identity whenever it feels comfortable. People often assume they will offend others by bringing up topics of this sort, but this openness is what creates an atmosphere of welcoming and understanding that allows others to speak openly as well.
- Be an active LGBTQIA+ ally: Support policies at school, work, or other places that help protect LGBTQIA+ people from discrimination. Even if the issues seem small, they can have a significant impact on people's lives. If you see or hear of an unfair rule or policy, talk to a peer or trusted adult about your concerns and what you can do to make a change.
- Do not let stigma and shame drive you. Whether it be your sexuality, your identity, or your mental health, do your best not to let stigma drive you. While stigma can come from others, it very often comes from ourselves as well. It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge a mental health condition you may be facing. In fact, it is a sign of strength.
- Support mental health awareness. Do not let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help. Finding help through treatment and counseling can be incredibly important. Mental illnesses may be more complex, but they can be treated just like diabetes or high blood pressure.
As we celebrate Pride month in June, remember that being a good ally starts with listening to the people you want to help. Talk with community leaders and ask how you can get involved instead of assuming a role for yourself. This does not mean stepping back—it means using empathy and compassion to step up and become an active advocate for LGBTQIA+ equality.