By Zoe Schulz, myGwork
This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week. A week that will start conversations we are in dire need of and for LGBTQ+ people this is more relevant than ever. The theme for this year is kindness, which seems pertinent amidst the chaotic and uncontrollable events that are the current pandemic. Kindness and empathy are what has powered us through the past isolating weeks. As our normalcy was flipped upside down, the way we care for ourselves and those around us was too. From picking up supplies for an elderly neighbour to checking in with a friend who’s feeling isolated, what was once a nice gesture has moulded into something closer to life-or-death. This has also meant that the way we look after our mental health has had to change. We know that isolation and separation from society is usually the opposite of what mental health professionals recommend for wellbeing, however, we’ve now had to find ways to cope through lockdowns and social distancing. On top of this, mental health services have had to adapt, with face-to-face appointments becoming impossible, we’ve waded into unknown territory and keeping our mental health afloat is no easy feat.
For LGBTQ+ people finding effective ways to look after mental health could not be more vital. Evidence has shown that LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately affected by poor mental health, with a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Research from 2018 revealed that over half (52%) of LGBTQ+ people had experienced depression in the last year, a statistic harrowingly higher than the national average of 3.3%. Despite the glaringly obvious need for effective mental health services for LGBTQ+ folk, many queer people report widespread discrimination in healthcare settings, meaning treatment is often inaccessible or comes served with a side of discrimination. This was exactly the case for 29-year-old Anthony who shared their experience “An NHS nurse asked me about my recent gender reassignment surgery and then went on to compare me to a paedophile as if being trans is the same thing. It's shocking how little training NHS staff have had”. Discrimination in healthcare settings equates to LGBTQ+ people being less likely to seek out the support and services that they need, acting as a barrier to life-saving care to an already vulnerable community.
As we mark this year’s Mental Health Awareness month, it’s important to note that awareness is a great start, but without effective and accessible services these conversations may as well be shouted into a void. Yet, despite this need, securing adequate funding for NHS mental health services is an ongoing uphill battle. This has meant that a third of all NHS mental health beds have been lost over the last decade and 15% of mental health nurses have disappeared. As always, these cuts affect the most vulnerable and lower classes the most, with those who are unable to afford private care left stranded on waiting lists. It’s also vital that the care available is designed with LGBTQ+ people’s needs in mind, as Rosemary Donahue explains “an LGBTQ+ or queer-affirming therapist can change your life.” Seeking mental health care can be a very personal experience and having a carer that you have to educate on your identity can be exhausting. Niall Donaghy, a mental health nurse, is a firm believer that being LGBTQ+ makes him better at his job, he explains “Being LGBTQ+ has allowed me to have more in-depth insight into the issues affecting my community, thus when I come across LGBTQ+ patient I’m better equipped to provide support.” Although it is not vital that LGBTQ+ people see LGBTQ+ therapists, it is vital that they are LGBTQ-affirming. For many queer people their experiences in the world are directly linked to their identity and issues such as discrimination and rejection greatly impact their mental health, so having a therapist that knows how to navigate these topics is non-negotiable. Rosemary understands first-hand just how vital this is, as she explains “Prior to therapy, I thought I had to “be straight,” which was killing me inside. I firmly believe that if I didn’t have an affirming space to make these big decisions, my depression might have driven me to seriously harm myself.”
Finding care that accessible that is accessible, affordable and LGBTQ-affirming, might start to sound a bit like navigating a maze, however, there are services putting in the work to ensure they are all these things. One of these is ELOP (East London Out Project) who have been offering mental health services to those in need since 1995. Sarah Moore shared her experience accessing their services with us “I wish I’d known about the brilliant work of ELOP while I waited for counselling on an NHS waiting list for 1.5 years and couldn’t afford to go private. ELOP provides ‘pay what you can’ mental health support and their LGBTQ+ counsellors are absolutely amazing. I’m raising money for ELOP at the moment to help them ensure that they can support all who need them throughout the coronavirus crisis. Please donate if you can www.crowdfunder.co.uk/elop-covid19” Their ‘pay what you can’ policy means that their services are affordable for everyone, a detail that should be a given for all mental health services, yet is sadly not always the case.
Another organisation leading the way in LGBTQ-affirming care is MindOut, a mental health charity for LGBTQ+ people. Their website reads “LGBTQ mental health matters, now more than ever. If you are LGBTQ and feeling low, anxious or isolated, we are here for you” and their work backs up this mantra. They have been offering dedicated and specialised mental health care to LGBTQ+ people for over 20 years including peer to peer support, suicide prevention and projects dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ elderly people. With elderly LGBTQ+ people disproportionately experiencing loneliness and isolation, this tailored approached is a must-have.
On top of rallying for adequate services, there are changes we can all make to help make life easier for those struggling with their mental health and this starts with language. The language we use is important, it shapes how we perceive the world around us and influences our attitudes and beliefs. As LGBTQ+ people, we become acutely aware of the importance of language and why using inclusive terminology is so vital. Whether you are describing your own sexuality or ensuring you get someone’s pronouns correct, putting effort into using the correct words is a must and the same is true when we look at mental health. Terms such as ‘crazy’, ‘psycho’ or ‘bipolar’ are too often used as if they are adjectives, describing events, feelings or activities that have nothing to do with the serious mental health conditions they originate from. Using these words in this way perpetuates stigma and discrimination towards mental health issues and creates a barrier to authentic conversations around mental wellbeing. Changing the way that we use these words costs us nothing, except a little initial effort, yet the impact this change can have is far-reaching.