MENTAL HEALTH IS AN ISSUE FOR MANY LGBT PEOPLE. CRAIG STORRIE INVESTIGATES SOME OF THE REASONS BEHIND IT
Coping with depression on the gay scene
Out of all the situations that arise from discovering that you’re gay, coming out can be one of the most traumatic experiences for many people. It’s also one of the things nearly everyone who discovers that they are LGBT has to experience at some point in their lives, be it to one or more people. Many gay people have experienced a number of problems such as rejection from the people they care about, discrimination from society at large and a danger of violence and harassment from family, friends, work mates and even strangers. Experiencing these issues and other problems has understandably led to worryingly high rates of mental health and self-harm problems amongst gay people.
In fact, according to several studies taken place since 2001 by Susan Cochran, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of California, the rates of depression, anxiety and even suicide are worryingly far higher in gay men, than among their straight male counterparts. This in turn leads twice as many LGBT people to seek help from mental health professionals, according to a UCLA study taken back in 2009. Even just discovering that you are LGBT can cause lots of people to freefall into self-destructive behaviour that can include substance abuse, both physical and mental selfharm, and even sex addiction.
To some naïve people out there this might not seem far-fetched. If we were only to go off how the media portrays LGBT people then we all seem like a zany, fun and overly camp bunch who have lots of sex and take lots of drugs. All that substance abuse is bound to make anyone go off the deep end sooner or later!
Even worse is the fact there is still a huge amount of people out there who cling to the belief that homosexuality is a choice and does nothing but sicken our minds, leaving us wide open to a range of other mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders and bi polar. The findings from the aforementioned UCLA study will only add fuel to that fire as it doesn’t divulge the range of mental health issues that gays seek help for.
To get a clearer view of how the gay scene can affect a person’s mental health I asked a healthcare professional for his view on the subject. Joel Bennett is a professional counsellor working in both the private and public sector and feels that how people view the gay scene depends totally on their personal experiences.
“To some the scene can be an extended family and a place of belonging, whereas to others it may be a place of forced expectations and disillusionment,” he says. “Many LGBT individuals may have experienced prejudice and opposition throughout their lives, especially during the transition of ‘coming out’. As human beings, ultimately we are pack animals, we like to be together and survive together despite sometimes it feeling the opposite.
“For many the scene can offer them just that, a place to celebrate who they are, share with likeminded people and feel at ease with their identity. However, for many it may feel a further segregation and a need to fit into a group they don’t feel they belong to.”
Bennett agrees that there are “expectations on appearance, both physique and dress sense, expectations on who we associate with, what music we listen to, etc. There may even be pressure for some to fit within a certain group, i.e. from a gay man’s perspective – a bear, a twink, an otter, cub, etc. What if someone feels they do not fit into any of these categories? They may find themselves being lesser than, or not as acceptable as, others.”
Whilst there many people out there who feel segregated and not part of a larger community, Joel believes that the experiences that can come from being on the scene will vary from person to person.
“Some scenes may cater for a wider variety of tastes, interests and passions in which an individual can find their own place to fit in,” he says.
Joel explains that if you want to be part of the gay scene then “the most important thing is to find a scene that best fits your own style, and sense of interest: basically somewhere where you feel safe, free and included.”
To bring this situation closer to home I sought out some people who are both on the LGBT spectrum and identify themselves as having mental health problems and asked them the same question: “How do you feel about the gay scene and does it help or hinder your mental health issues?”
Christopher, a 23-year-old from Brighton with depression and anxiety issues, felt that going out on the scene only heightened his mental health problems and left him feeling worse than before he left the safety of his house.
“My friends are the only reason I even go on the scene but eight times out of ten I have a horrible time out due to feeling that I don’t fit into any of the gay stereotypes as well as not feeling attractive enough to be around the others on the gay scene.
“Whilst I know that most of the reason for me feeling this way is to do with my mental health issues, the fact that I don’t look gay, I listen to music that isn’t in the charts and I wear clothes that aren’t fashionable further push me away from fitting into any of the cliques and leave me feeling worthless and deflated.”
“To some the scene can be an extended family and a place of belonging. To others it may be a place of forced expectations and disillusionment”
When asked why he didn’t feel attractive enough Chris explained that people have been both insulting to him and bar and club staff have even apparently ignored him in favour of serving people who Chris believed to be more attractive than himself.
“Whilst I cannot be sure that this is the real reason,” explained Chris. “I have been served last at a busy bar even though I was first there in favour of people who have arrived after myself and whom I deemed both more attractive than me and looking more stereotypically ‘gay’.”
This seems to be a recurring issue with the people I interviewed: the fact that they feel lost, dejected and having no real connection to the gay scene which causes them to feel cut off from the world at large.
Patrick from Manchester, a 34-year-old gay man who has both mental health issues and HIV, also feels that the gay scene has put him into an even smaller niche of people that he doesn’t identify himself with nor feel any connection to.
“A lot of people that I have met who have HIV seem to be sleazy and are into all sorts of things that I really don’t want to be a part of. Even when I tell other LGBT people that I have HIV, around half of them think I am a slag who goes round shagging other HIV-positive people bareback or anyone who wants it - something which I find just mind-boggling. Even other people with HIV have had this view, something that confuses the hell out of me as I always practise safe sex. The fact that I also have mental health problems only further heightens my feelings of loneliness along with having no connection to a community that should be both welcoming and more open-minded.”
Even though all of these issues are still frequent and troubling problems, since the turn of the last century society has actually become less and less prejudiced towards people who identify themselves as part of the LGBT spectrum.
This doesn’t lessen the problems and issues that arise from being gay but it is a reassuring fact that things slowly and inevitably do get better. Whilst there are many people on the scene who are both supportive and understanding in regards to people with mental health issues, we are very lucky that there are many charities in this country that are there solely for anyone who defines themselves as LGBT should they need help with any aspect of their lives. Fantastic charities such as Mindout in Brighton, Pace in London, and even smaller projects like Comfort Talks who are entirely based online, have been striving to promote mental health and emotional well-being for anyone should they be gay, lesbian, transsexual or bisexual for many years.
These amazing projects are continually striving to help anyone who needs help with their mental health and are helping to promote a healthy attitude to sufferers of mental disorders. It’s a huge step in the right direction for the LGBT community and thankfully can only help lead towards lessening the prejudice towards mental health issues, something that has been a long time coming.