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LGBTQ Individuals Are Twice as Likely to Develop a Mental Health Disorder. Here’s How to Be an Ally

Every June, straight people flock to Pride festivals to get a taste of the LGBTQ life: Rainbows, parties, glitter, dancing, parades, and endless bottles of SKYY Vodka. Who wouldn’t want to be queer, right? Amidst the all-nighters and drag shows, though, a darker truth obscures the technicolor glow: LGBTQ indivuals are twice as likely to develop a mental health disorder in their lifetime. And that’s only the start of the sobering statistics.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ individuals between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide. Between 38 and 65 percent of transgender individuals experience suicidal ideation. Approximately 20 to 30 percent of the LGBTQ population abuses substances, as opposed to an estimated nine percent of the general population. The data is endless, and it’s terrifying.

Since the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, the war on LGBTQ rights has somewhat lessened — minus this administration’s assault on transgender rights. However, the battle rages on, especially in the minds of those struggling in a heteronormative society. While there may not be a direct causation, prejudice and discrimination are two major contributors to mental health issues.

Being an ally to someone who identifies as LGBTQ goes beyond merely accepting their lifestyle; it’s about using your privilege to fight homophobia, donating to or volunteering for organizations that fight for LGBTQ rights, and making sure that voices of the underprivileged are heard, particularly people of color. However, truly stepping up for your LGBTQ friends and family may also mean supporting them through their struggles with mental health.

This June, go beyond partying at Pride as a sign of allyship; support your LGBTQ loved ones the following ways.

Listen to their stories

It took Devon Pearl two and a half decades of living in the closet and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to finally come out, leave her marriage, and believe she could “live the life I know I’m worth living.”

I knew I was gay, or at least interested in women, from age 10, and I was never able to voice it because I grew up in a home where homophobic slurs were tossed around like the daily lunch menu,” Pearl said. “Add in being sexually assaulted at age 19 by a friend and not feeling comfortable enough to tell my parents or closest friends, the layers just kept being piled on until the #MeToo movement triggered me so badly, I had to seek therapy and start unpacking all of my [baggage].”

Anna Poley experienced a similar lack of support. She grew up in a conservative Calvinist household, where she was taught that praying or reading scripture could “cure” panic attacks or depressive episodes — issues she regularly experienced. Her parents refused to send her to a therapist until she turned 18.

“Even then, it was to a Christian therapist who taught me that my anxiety was the result of Satan attacking me,” Poley said. “This just caused more confusion and depression, and at the time, I was beginning to realize that I was bisexual; that just added more confusion, so I stopped going to therapy and moved. My mental health was horrible throughout my teenage years and it only worsened as time continued. Everything came to a head in 2013 when I attempted suicide and ended up hospitalized.”

Poley was eventually diagnosed with several mental health disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and panic disorder. Despite her struggles, she is a published author with the Paragon Press, and editor of the book To Survive Divinity.

Understand the layers of isolation

For people like Pearl and Poley, a sense of isolation can stem from mental health issues as well as living outside of society’s heteronormative expectations. While Pride can create a feeling of belonging for people who identify as LGBTQ, for others, it can elicit an even greater sense of loneliness.

Ashley Steves identifies as bi+. In addition to facing discrimination from both the straight and LGBTQ communities alike, bisexual women are at the highest risk of gender-based violence; 44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women, according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

Despite the risk associated with identifying as bisexual, Steves said she feels a lack of inclusivity at Pride. “I think a lot of Pride’s problem is properly representing its people,” Steves said. “You hear it all the time: People need to see themselves to feel like they belong. Few things are more isolating than feeling left out by your own supposed community.”

In addition, it can be particularly isolating for those who identify outside of society’s rigid gender spectrum, said Kristin Kelley. Kelley identifies as non-binary and asexual.

“Queer spaces and straight spaces both erase my identity a lot,” Kelley said. “While I celebrate Pride privately and often write about it publicly and consider queer history to be my history, it hurts even worse to be excluded from a space that claims to be inclusive.”

Don’t assume everyone attends Pride

In addition to feeling underrepresented at Pride, a lot of people can find the event challenging, or even triggering, to attend.

Michael Whelan, who has C-PTSD, major depressive disorder and “a few anxiety disorders,” said they stopped attending Pride after attending Pride events because they are “just really uncomfortable.”

“Pride events are typically crowded and loud,” Whelan said. “This is totally understandable, and not something I think should be changed (I don’t think it would be fair to push as it’s a loud, out, and proud celebration), but for people with panic/anxiety disorders it’s very overwhelming and stressful.”

Plus, it can be simultaneously underwhelming and overwhelming, Steves said.

“I try to go to the Dyke March and other queer women- and/or nonbinary-centered events on the years I do go, but I also skip a lot of years, including last year,” Steves said. “There’s definitely a level of social overload, but truthfully, more so, I just think bi+ people like myself are still trying to carve out their place at Pride, and that can be disheartening and overwhelming more than anything else.”

Use your privilege to support the LGBTQ community

If you’re straight and planning to attend Pride, you need to understand the history of the movement. Pride began on June 28, 1969 as a protest against the New York City Police Department harassing the LGBTQ community; known as the Stonewall Riots, this movement was spearheaded by two transgender women of color: Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

Despite these revolutionary roots, Pride has become a white-washed, capitalistic dance party. Meanwhile, transgender women of color are still being killed. Just like mental health, the LGBTQ movement is complicated and filled with a great deal of injustices.

In other words, being an ally doesn’t mean just showing up and posting a few Instagram stories at Pride. Instead, look for tangible ways to give back, said Krystal Jagoo, MSW, a Toronto-based social worker who has provided mental health services for the last decade.

I have come to have a love-hate relationship with the term ‘ally,’ as it can be a tool for the un-oppressed to take space away from those with lived experience,” Jagoo said. “I would listen to the recommendations from multiply marginalized LGBTQ folx, and invest in their needs, as those of us with power and privilege have a responsibility to support these individuals in tangible ways.”

And continue to support the LGBTQ community beyond June. While they’re twice as likely to develop a mental health disorder, queer individuals are more likely to avoid getting professional help due to a fear of discrimination. Make sure to show up, listen, and help whenever possible.

“Being ‘othered’ is the first way to make someone feel unworthy, and a lot of the time, it’s internalized at the deepest of levels,” Pearl said. “I think mental illness is prevalent within the community simply by its design, but we have to do and be better for our fellow brothers and sisters in order to show up stronger for each other and for those who have yet to join our family.”

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