It’s late on a Tuesday night and I’ve just gotten off the phone to a close friend. He’s been feeling consistently low for a couple of weeks now, so we’ve been chatting late at night to get his mind off things. As I tuck myself into bed, I glance at my messages. One friend is texting me about how she feels her social anxiety is ruining all her relationships. Another is de-briefing me on his latest therapy session. As I tuck myself into bed, I’m reminded that only last week I was having a beer with a group of friends when one of them found out her friend had taken their own life. And as I lay there, trying so desperately to hold it together for my friends – all brilliant, inspiring queer people – I begin to cry. Because the truth is, this is not new.
Growing up gay and mixed-race, I was no stranger to bullying. In a predominantly white school, when confronted with racial abuse, I’d go home and seek solace in my father, who knew all too well what it was like to be ridiculed for simply being who he was. But being bullied for being effeminate was a different beast – because I had no-one to turn to. To speak to my parents would mean to reveal to them that I was gay, the mere thought of which would trigger a wave of crippling shame. To speak to my friends, many of whom liberally used the word “gay” as a slur, didn’t seem like an option either. So I suffered alone, and in silence. And as I grew older, I began to think of gayness and loneliness almost as twins - mirroring each other, inextricably and profoundly intertwined.
Eventually the loneliness became to much to bear. At 19, I attempted suicide. My father found me and saved my life, sparking a chain of events that led to therapy, medication and the eventual proud proclamation of my sexuality to the world. But I’m still a work-in-progress. I, along with so many of my LGBT friends, am still chipping away at the residual shame that’s come from the damaging experience of hiding an integral part of my identity for so long. I – we – are still struggling.
In a recent report on the state of LGBT health in the UK, Stonewall revealed that 52% of LGBT people have experienced depression in the past year. When it comes to anxiety, this number rises to 61%. This compares to one in six adults in England who faced a common mental health problem, according to Mind. For many people, these numbers will come as a shock, but for the queer community, these statistics simply reflect our lived experience. Despite being a community which suffers disproportionately from mental health problems, no special provisions are made for LGBT people when seeking support. My friend debriefing me on his therapy sessions? He pays for these out of pocket, on a credit card, in order to have access to a therapist who won’t be openly hostile to his identity. My other friend struggling with her social anxiety? She gave up on her NHS therapist after they consistently downplayed her gender dysphoria.
The reality is that not all LGBT people are able to afford to seek help privately, nor is private healthcare accessible to everyone in the country. So what does, for example, a gay teenager in rural Wales do when experiencing chronically low mood, or suffering from an addiction disorder? They rely on the NHS. But state-funded mental health services are not always LGBT-friendly. According to Stonewall’s report, when accessing government healthcare services, 23% of LGBT people have witnessed negative remarks from staff in reference to their sexuality or gender identity. Distressingly, 14% they have avoided treatment for fear of being on the receiving end of discrimination.
For a community so in need of mental healthcare support, this simply isn’t good enough. The government has made significant strides in ensuring that LGBT people are accommodated through a £1million fund to improve health and social care in England and the promise of a national adviser for LGBT healthcare. But still when assessing the availability of healthcare services for one of the communities most vulnerable to mental illness, it is clear that more work needs to be done. A full review of the mental healthcare services provided by the government, working intersectionally to take into account the needs of the communities most at-risk, is a necessity in a diverse society such as the UK.
Being lesbian, gay, bi or trans shouldn’t mean you’re automatically at higher risk of experiencing poorer mental health. But the reality is that the world we live in and the discrimination our community faces, makes it so. That means it’s even more important that our healthcare services are equipped and ready to respond to the needs of LGBT people to build a happier, healthier world for everyone - no exceptions.
Alexander Leon is an LGBT activist and charity worker
Useful websites and helplines:
- London Lesbian & Gay switchboard (LLGS) is a free confidential support & information helpline for LGBT communities throughout the UK | 0300 330 0630
- Manchester Lesbian and Gay Switchboard is a free support, information and referral service for the Manchester and North-West area | 0161 235 8000
- Stonewall for more information on other LGBT services and helplines | 08000 502020