Before we start, let’s sort out some important terminology. LGBTIQA+ stands for people who are:
- Lesbian: women who are attracted to women
- Gay: men who are attracted to men
- Bisexual: individuals who are attracted to both men and women
- Transgender: if we think of gender as ‘either male or female’, these are individuals who identify as the gender opposite to the sex they were born as, for example someone born with typically male biology but who has a female gender
- Intersex: someone who does not have the biology of what would traditionally be considered either ‘male’ or ‘female’; their combination of chromosomes, gonads, internal sex organs, hormones and genitals is different from the binary male and female sexes
- Queer: gender-queer individuals would not describe their gender as either ‘male’ or ‘female’; the expression of their gender does not fit into one of these binary categories, but rather somewhere on a continuum or spectrum
- Asexual: people who experience a lack (or low level) of sexual attraction to others and/or a lack of interest or desire for sex or sexual partners, and
- +: the inclusion of the ‘plus’ acknowledges the people of other diverse sexualities and gender identities, and allies, not represented in the acronym.
Just like we use ‘heterosexual’ as a term to describe people who are attracted to others of the opposite gender or sex, the term ‘cisgendered’ refers to individuals who, unlike transgendered people, identify with the same gender as their biological sex (e.g., a person who was born with typically female biology and who identifies as female).
Now that we’re all on the same page with language, let’s turn our attention to the mental health of LGBTIQA+ people.
Unfortunately, those of us who are members of a sexual or gender minority group are more likely to struggle with our mental health than our heterosexual, cisgendered peers.
One of the largest meta-analyses (a meta-analysis looks at the carefully combined results of many smaller studies together at once, in order to get a more accurate and detailed picture of what’s going on) compared the wellbeing of over 214,000 heterosexual adults with that of almost 12,000 LGB people (King et al., 2008). The results showed that lesbian, gay and bisexual people were between 1.5 and 4 times more likely than their heterosexual peers to be depressed or anxious, suicidal, engaging in deliberate self-harm, and abusing drugs and alcohol as a way of coping.
Unfortunately, these and similar results have been found repeatedly, including here in Australia. An excellent summary of the current state of Australian LGBTIQA+ people’s mental health can be found in this July 2016 publication. Here is a summary of those results:
General mental health statistics:
- Compared to the general population, LGBTIQA+ people are more than twice as likely to report being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health problem in the last 12 months
- Compared to the general population, LGB people are nearly six times more likely to currently be depressed, and more than twice as likely to be anxious
- Compared to cisgendered people, TQ people are nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with depression, and nearly three times as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, at some point in their lifetime
- Compared to the general population, Intersex people are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety
- Compared to the rest of the population, LGBTIQA+ people are also more likely to experience higher levels of psychological distress, especially if they have been the target of verbal abuse, physical abuse, or harassment
- Young LGBTIQA+ people aged 16-24 years old were found to have the highest level of distress compared to all other age groups
- More than one-third of transgender people experience mental health problems to the extent that they would describe it as a disability or a chronic health condition
- Sadly, LGBTIQA+ people are more likely than the general Australian population to make an attempt to end their own life
- Compared to the rest of the population, LGBTIQA+ young people are 6.5 times more likely to think about, and five times as likely to attempt, suicide
- Transgender adults are almost 19 times more likely to think about, and nearly 11 times more likely to attempt, suicide
- At any given time, almost one in six LGBTIQA+ Australians will have struggled over the last fortnight with thoughts of ending their life
- Experiences of hate and prejudice increase the risk; more than a third of LGB 14-21 year-olds who’ve experienced physical attacks attempt suicide
With this sobering reality in the minds of researchers, studies have also looked into the causes for poorer LGBTIQA+ mental health. Meta-analyses (Berrill, 1992; Katz-Wise & Hydge, 2012) point towards the abysmal prejudice suffered by the community; around 80% of LGBTIQA+ people experience verbal harassment, almost half have received threats of violence, almost 30% have been physically assaulted, and 9% have been attacked with a weapon.
What’s crucial to realise, but may come as a shock, is this research finding by Mays and Cochran (2001): when we statistically cancel out the harmful effects of discrimination, hate and prejudice, the mental health differences between the general population vs. sexual and gender minorities becomes insignificant. In other words, the greater mental health problems, psychological distress and other disadvantages experienced by sexually- and gender-diverse individuals pretty much boil down to the ways in which we are treated differently to the rest of the population. This is why our push for equality remains so crucial. Clearly, making our society a safer place for individuals to openly be themselves in is the key to the psychological wellbeing of sexual and gender minorities. And in the meantime, we can take comfort in knowing that coming out of the closet (and into an imperfect world that is still plagued by inequality), although sometimes a painful process, is linked to a reduction in distress and suicidality in LGBTIQA+ people.
If you are an LGBTIQA+ person in need of help with your mental health or safety, if you are a loved one looking to understand or support someone who is same-sex attracted or gender-diverse, if you have experienced prejudice or discrimination as a result of being a gender or sexual minority, if your wellbeing is compromised as a result of who you are or who you love, if you want to explore the possibility of a life lived out of the closet, we’re here to help.