Staying Healthy in the Queer Community Means Prioritizing Mental Health

David Auten & John Schneider — Queer Money

As part of Make Change’s Health Week, we want to cover some important—and not often discussed—concerns in our community. Depression, substance abuse, and suicide are pervasive in the queer community, and it’s time to address it. 

Because of the homophobia that exists in our society, many queer people grow up feeling inadequate and sometimes internalize that homophobia. As with others who grow up feeling stigmatized and battling feelings of worthlessness because of their identity, queer people are particularly vulnerable to mental anguish and toxic coping tools.

While normally we write about financial issues facing the queer community, we find that the same pressures that can cause LGBTQ people to chase a “fabulous” lifestyle that they can’t quite afford can also cause them to cover up much more serious problems than credit card debt and defaulted loans.

The more we talk about our mental health, the more aware people become and the more help people can get.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that gay men and bisexual men have a greater propensity to suffer from major depression, bipolar disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder than our straight counterparts. This is also true of lesbian and bisexual women, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health. LGBT youth are more at risk of suffering from major depression than their straight peers.

While society is becoming more accepting of queer people, many individuals and families still struggle with acceptance. Many queer kids must leave home before the age of 18, and 40 percent of homeless youth identifies as queer, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute.

Even among the majority of queer adults who thankfully did not end up homeless, situations as banal as work environments can be stigmatizing. In 2015, data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showed a 28 percent increase in LGBTQ-related workplace discrimination complaints. It’s also still legal in 28 states to fire someone for being queer. The fear of being outed at work, and subsequently losing a job because of it, creates stress that can spiral into depression.

Add to this the newly precarious legal status of many married LGBTQ couples, and the ongoing worry of acceptance among one’s friends, neighbors, and family, and it’s no wonder our community suffers mental health afflictions. Left untreated and unsupported, queer Americans dealing with mental illness are at risk for fatal outcomes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the violence, homophobia, and discrimination that drive stress and depression in the LGBTQ community can also cause queer people to turn to drugs and alcohol. The CDC says that queer people are more likely to use alcohol and drugs, have higher rates of substance abuse, and continue heavy drinking into later life. A 2015 op-ed in The Advocate reflected on the problem under the headline “Gay Men, We Have a Drinking Problem.”

While LGBTQ bars and clubs can offer welcome opportunities to mix and mingle in a safe space, they are also peddling alcohol, and sometimes drugs, which can normalize substance abuse or even cause peer pressure to partake. Abuse can become addiction, which can ruin lives in the long term and end them (via overdoses or intoxicated behavior) suddenly.

There’s another sad and sudden way untreated mental afflictions can end lives:
Suicide and suicide attempts are higher in the queer community than in the general population. A 2011 survey in the U.K. found 3 percent of gay men and 5 percent of bisexual men had attempted suicide, compared to 0.4 percent of men overall. Suicide attempt rates are four times higher for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth than straight youth, according to the CDC. Nationwide, 40 percent of transgender adults reported making at least one suicide attempt. Of those, 92 percent attempted suicide before age 25.

Many suicides happen because the victims feel they have no other options. It’s a reasonable assumption that these feelings are magnified in many queer people, who may have been (or currently fear being) ostracized because of their sexuality or gender identity. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who come from highly unsupportive families are over eight times more likely to have attempted suicide than those who come from a more supportive network, according to the CDC.

Resources for Queer People:

While we’re talking about being healthier and living better lives this week, we can’t forget about those who feel their lives have no worth. We can’t forget about those who struggle to get out of bed in the morning, let alone make it to the gym. We can’t forget about those who have been conditioned to feel inadequate, flawed, or damaged.

If you or someone you know suffers from depression, substance abuse, or thoughts of suicide, talk about it and know that others care. No matter what you’re facing in life, there are people who can help. Below are resources for more information and support.