This last week has been Happy Valley Pride in Hebden Bridge – a celebration of our LGBTQ+ community and families. Yesterday was the “Big Day Out” – a day of music and cabaret, and a disco in St George’s Square. It was a lovely uplifting day. (Spoiled a little for me by overindulgence but more on that another time)
The past month of Pride events are a marker of how far equality as regards sexuality and gender have come in the past fifty years in the UK. Others across the globe are not so free or fortunate, and indeed the rolling back of some laws and progress in the US reminds us that hard won rights are not irreversible and the fight goes on.
Even in our relatively progressive society, the impact of generations of prejudice, discrimination and taboo can be seen in the fact that there are huge inequalities in all sorts of outcomes such as health and education for LGBTQ+ people. A few selected statistics from the LGBT Foundation and other show a picture in need of much work:
Over 50% of young gay people have self harmed in the last year, compared to between 1 in 15 and 1 in 10 of the general population.
LGB people are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide, and two to three times more likely to have depression.
Prevalence of eating disorders in the LGBTQ+ community could be around 1 in 5 or 20%,
There are similar disparities relating to physical health – and variations within the communities, which show it is far from a simple picture. Many people have experienced bullying in school, homophobia and hate crimes in later life. People go to seek help from doctors and are faced with prejudicial or inappropriate attitudes. Even with a more accepting society, young people who come to realise they are not straight, or that their gender identity is not that which they have been assigned at birth – can have a difficult time as they grow to adulthood. Adolescence is hardly a cake walk for anyone – but processing your identity in a world which assumes you to be a way that you are not, figuring out how you feel about it, fearing that others will reject you because of it – and in some cases being right. It is an extra load of strain in life that can leave its traces. And something which can stop you from having the kind of supportive relationships with parents and friends that might otherwise help you to deal with the stresses and strains of figuring out how to have adult relationships.
There are lots of reasons why anyone can develop a mental health problem – lots of possible explanations, biological, hereditary, biochemical, experiential – but it is certain that increased stressors, discrimination and lack of support lead to increased risk of ill health. LGBTQ+ people are more likely to have taken drugs, and there is a high prevalence of binge drinking and smoking. I remember a discussion on this issue in university – different angles being the use of substances to self medicate and deal with depression, anxiety, isolation etc., but also the observation that the “gay scene” is in most cities heavily dependent on pubs and clubs. If you want to make like minded friends, and potentially meet a romantic or sexual partner, it’s likely going to be through going out drinking. Some areas may now be better served, and the youth of today in those areas may have a more “normal” experience of growing up than LGBTQ+ youth of twenty years ago, but we cannot kid ourselves that the problems have all been solved.
Those of us who feel the importance of this issue, can try to do what we can to keep progress moving, and be vigilant and not allow rights to be stripped back, for the sake of generations to come. If we want to help reduce the disparity between the experience of young LGBTQ+ people and everyone else, a good place to start is by increasing our understanding. Both of the issues faced by, and relating to LGBTQ+ people, and of mental health in general. Admit what you don’t know, what you don’t understand – find out more, listen to those whose experiences are different from yours, and ask questions. Read, learn, and be a part of making the world a place where everyone can be who they are, love who they love, without it meaning they are destined to have a greater incidence of mental ill health, suicide or self harm.