Over the past month – in the US and in approximately 70 countries around the world – organizations, corporations, communities, and even some government agencies, have celebrated and are honoring LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/ Questioning) friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members in recognition of Pride Month.
As communities and states across the globe celebrate pride month, Barbara Van Dahlen, Ph.D. draws on the importance of being mindful of and supporting the mental wellness of LGBTQ individuals and particurly young LGBTQ people who have some of the highest rates of suicide. And shares how ‘we can all do more to educate and advocate for the rights of those who remain vulnerable and underserved’. Sherah Beckley, Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability
These celebrations demonstrate what we can achieve as a compassionate and healthy society – openness, acceptance and respect for all. But as we know, there are still far too many LGBTQ people who are discriminated against, abused simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The long-term consequences are significant and much remains to be done to ensure that all in need receive the care and support they deserve.
The first Pride March was held in New York City (NYC) in June of 1970 to commemorate the Stonewall Riots that took place the prior June. For those who may not know this history, the Stonewall riots were a series of violent retaliations against police raids on gay bars in Greenwich Village, NYC, beginning at the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969.
Several gay men were beaten and taken into custody for soliciting “homosexual relations”, for not wearing gender appropriate clothing and for other charges related to appearance and sexuality. The Stonewall Riots are credited with beginning the gay liberation movement in the United States.
Originally, Pride events took place on the last Sunday in June but quickly expanded into an entire month of planned activities in large cities – first in the US and then around the world. In 1995, June was declared National LGBT History Month by the General Assembly of the US National Education Association. In 2009, US President Barack Obama declared June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.
I remember feeling especially proud to be an American as I passed by a White House that was bathed in the colors of the rainbow to celebrate the President’s declaration.
Pride Month was initially intended to reflect a political agenda and voice LGBTQ demands for equal rights and protections. During the 1980s, parades and demonstrations across the US brought much needed attention to the AIDS epidemic. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Pride began to resemble what it is today – a celebration of queer life and sexuality in addition to political and social demonstration.
While Pride month is an opportunity to appreciate all that has been accomplished politically and socially, it also serves as an important reminder of what we must continue to do to reach those who continue to be shunned instead of celebrated.
Because of the ignorance and intolerance that remains, there is reason to be concerned about the emotional health and well-being of some of our LGBTQ brothers, sisters and friends. We should be especially concerned about our LGBTQ youth.
According to recent reports from Mental Health America, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Centers for Disease Control, mental health challenges are more prevalent among those who identify themselves as LGBTQ.
For example, LGBTQ individuals living in the US are three times more likely to have a mental health condition than non-LGBTQ individuals. In addition, an estimated 20-30% of LGBTQ people abuse substances, compared to about 9% of the general population. Further, surveys of adolescents in this populations indicate that 10% demonstrate a mood disorder, 25% an anxiety disorder, and 8.3% a substance use disorder.
In 2015, nearly one-third (29%) of LGBTQ youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6% of heterosexual youth. And sadly, for LGBTQ people aged 10–24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. Further, our LGB youth are four times more likely – and questioning youth are three times more likely – to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm than heterosexual people. Finally, as many as 65% of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation.
Why are these numbers so high compared to non-LGBTQ individuals?
We know that family support – or the lack of support – plays a particularly important role in affecting the likelihood of suicidal ideation and attempts. LGBTQ youth who faced rejection after coming out to their families were more than 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide than someone who was accepted by their family after revealing their sexual orientation.
Perhaps most distressing are the numbers associated with our LGBTQ youth who are living on the streets. Up to 1.6 million young people experience homelessness in the United States every year.
40% of them identify as LGBTQ according to a 2012 study conducted by the Williams Institute at UCLA . This number is especially shocking given that LGBTQ youth make up only 7% of the total youth population.
46% of homeless LGBTQ youths report that they ran away because of their family’s rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 43% were forced out by parents, and 32% faced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home.
As we know, mistreatment isn’t limited to the home. The effects of abuse and harassment at school also have long-term consequences for our LGBTQ youth. School is supposed to be a safe place for children to learn and grow. But for our LGBTQ youth, this is often not the case.
According to a 2016 report by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, LGBTQ students who experienced high levels of anti-LGBTQ victimization were twice as likely to report they do not plan to pursue post-secondary education. Also, LGBTQ students who experienced high levels of victimization and discrimination had lower GPAs, lower self-esteem and higher levels of depression.
55% of LGBTQ youth report feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 37% feel unsafe because of their gender expression. Finally, 16% were physically assaulted, either punched, kicked, or injured with a weapon, because of their sexual orientation.
These troubling statistics remind us that many within the LGBTQ community continue to face mistreatment and abuse – and many suffer long-term consequences as a result.
Is it any wonder that many LGBTQ individuals struggle with mental health and substance abuse challenges given the way they are treated – often by their own family members?
Is it any wonder that many within the community feel such emotional pain that suicide seems to be their only option for relief?
Lest we feel overwhelmed by the work that remains to be done, there are hopeful signs that culture change continues. Just this past week, the Vatican used the term LGBT for what is believed to be the first time in history in a planning document for an upcoming high-level meeting.
In addition, a prominent advocate for LGBT people was asked to speak at a second, meeting – something gay Catholic groups say has also never been done before.
But we can’t leave it to the Pope or other world leaders to create the change we seek.
We must each look for ways to contribute so that LGBTQ people – of all ages – are treated with respect, dignity and compassion. Those of us who have specific skills to address the consequences of abuse, mistreatment and mental health challenges must do more to attend to those who are suffering. And we can all do more to educate and advocate for the rights of those who remain vulnerable and underserved.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can practice what we hope to see – and we can teach our children to do the same. We can be open-hearted, caring and compassionate toward those who are different from us – even those whose intolerance we find difficult to understand.
A recently published children’s book written by child psychologist and author Dr. Michael Genhart does an excellent job of going straight to the heart of the matter. In Love is Love, children being raised by same-sex parents around the world struggle to make sense of the discrimination they experience.
In this beautifully illustrated story, the children eventually come to a shared wisdom – one that I wish more adults would appreciate – that it really doesn’t matter whether your parents are straight or gay…..what matters is that they protect, nurture and love you.
Indeed, isn’t that all that any of us really want and need – to be loved, respected and cherished by someone we trust?
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