LGBT+ students and mental health


It has been difficult to ignore the rising attention given to mental health over the last several years. Health care for such issues has long paled in comparison to those with physical ailments, but recently there has been an increased focus on correcting this inequality.

The 2012 Health and Social Care Act gave a new legal responsibility to the UK government: ensuring parity of treatment between mental and physical health conditions.

In her first statement as prime minister, Theresa May acknowledged this issue, criticising the fact that “if you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.” In a separate speech, Ms May also denounced “the despicable stigma and inadequate help for those with mental health conditions.” She then called for mental health to be “addressed not just in our hospitals, but in our classrooms and communities.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also turned his attention to mental health issues, appointing a separate shadow minister for mental health when he was first elected in September 2015.

This new attention to mental health issues is arguably also reflected in changing attitudes towards people with such conditions. According to Time to Change, a mental health advocacy group, the number of people who would be willing to live, work, and have a relationship with someone who has experience of a mental health problem has increased by six per cent since 2011, with a 2.8 per cent improvement between 2012 and 2013 alone. Mental health charity Mind stated that this is “likely […] the biggest annual improvement” since the National Attitudes to Mental Illness survey was first launched in 1993.

Despite this newfound spotlight, the same attention has not been given to the issue of mental health in the LGBT+ community. Many surveys show that LGBT+ people are far more likely to suffer from mental health issues than their straight, cisgender counterparts.

According to polling company YouGov, LGBT+ people were more than twice as likely to suffer from a mental health problem. The RaRE report, a UK-based five-year-long study commissioned by LGBT+ mental health charity Pace, found that 34 per cent of young LGB people (under 26) and 48 per cent of young transgender people surveyed had made at least one suicide attempt. Comparably, 18 per cent of heterosexual and 26 per cent of cisgender young people surveyed had made at least one suicide attempt.

Dominic Davies of Pink Therapy, a mental health support service for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, said, “As LGB people, our mental health is often under attack from various quarters, and sometimes we can find ourselves being our own worst enemy.

“Counselling or psychotherapy can be a place to take stock and figure out what’s going on, and how to better handle the various stresses and strains that surround our lives.” Activist Paris Lees has emphasised the fact that “48 per cent of young trans people in the UK have attempted suicide. Almost half. Not just ‘thought about.’ Attempted.”

The National Health Service specifically addresses the greater prevalence of mental health problems amongst LGBT+ people on its website, stating, “Although society has changed and homophobic prejudice is less common than it used to be, most lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have experienced a range of difficulties in their lives. These can contribute to mental health problems.”

There has been much discussion about why LGBT+ people have a greater tendency to suffer from mental health problems.

Matthew Todd, the editor of Attitude (a magazine aimed at gay men), has written extensively on mental health problems in the queer community. In 2016, Mr Todd released the book Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay and Happy. One of the central premises of the work is that LGBT+ people suffer from childhood trauma from having to suppress their sexual orientation or gender identity, and in much the same way as other forms of childhood trauma, this leads to a wide array of mental health issues later in life.

Writing in The Guardian ahead of the book’s release, Mr Todd said, “Despite more LGBT people than ever leading happy, successful lives (thank goodness), it is becoming increasingly clear that a disproportionate number of us are not thriving as we should.

“What’s wrong is not our sexuality, but our experience of growing up in a society that still does not fully accept that people can be anything other than heterosexual and cisgendered (i.e. born into the physical gender you feel you are).

“It is the damage done to us by growing up strapped inside a cultural straitjacket – a tight-fitting, onesize restraint imposed on us at birth – that leaves no room to grow. It makes no allowances for the fact that, yes, indeed, some people are different and we deserve – and need – to be supported and loved for who we are, too.”

The NHS also offers a variety of reasons why LGBT+ people suffer from more mental health issues, including “hostility or rejection from family, parents and friends, bullying and name calling at school, rejection by most mainstream religions, danger of violence in public places, harassment from neighbours and other tenants, casual homophobic comments on an everyday basis, embarrassed responses (and occasionally prejudice) from professionals, such as GPs, no protection against discrimination at work, [and] negative portrayal of gay people in the media.”

Despite the wide variety of mental health problems that members of the LGBT+ community can face, support for dealing with such problems is limited. In January 2016, advocacy group PACE closed down after 31 years because of financial difficulties. Jonny Benjamin, an LGBT+ mental health activist who was made an MBE for his campaigning, has severely criticised cuts to mental health services by the government, writing, “With the right treatment, people can get better. But instead of getting much-needed investment, these services are facing major cuts. It means that millions of people are suffering because they can’t get support, and each day 16 people in the UK take their own lives.”

In St Andrews, there are several avenues that LGBT+ students struggling with mental health issues can explore for support. While NHS Scotland does offer counselling services for students at the University, long waiting lists mean that the main source of support for many is Student Services. Staff members help students through avenues such as counselling, helping to arrange deferred assessments, and communicating to a department that a student’s health issues may be affecting their work.

Saints LGBT+, the Students’ Association’s society for LGBT+ students, also offers support for students. Although the society is not qualified to offer formal counselling services, Saints LGBT+ can offer advice based on committee members’ own experiences and help students take steps to contact Student Services if necessary.

The society also offers an anonymous email service that students can contact to ask for advice on issues related to being LGBT+, such as struggling to come out to friends and family or finding a space to meet other LGBT+ people.

Saints LGBT+ also runs welfare drop-ins regularly throughout the year. Students can come and speak to members of the committee about anything from more serious issues related to being LGBT+ to just asking questions about the next society event.

Association LGBT+ Officer and Saints LGBT+ President Lewis Wood said, “There are multiple groups within the Association that are here to support you, whether [they are] LGBT+, wellbeing, or an external body like Nightline. But I’d also encourage people to rely on people around them. St Andrews is a very communal place, and our support for each other is what makes us so special as a University town. Use the people around you and create an environment within which you can thrive.”


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