Time to destigmatise mental health issues

by Ellen Kahn | Human Rights Campaign Foundation
Wednesday, 10 October 2018 09:48 GMT

Supporters and families of transgender children take part in a protest against transphobia in Madrid, Spain, March 25, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera

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75 percent of LGBT+ teens said they recently felt depressed and 67 percent had heard negative remarks from family members

Ellen Kahn is director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Children, Youth & Families Programme

So many people who struggle with illnesses such as anxiety or depression carry with them connected burdens. They carry the fear that loved ones will pull away or fail to understand. They carry the shame that comes from struggling in a society in which people are pressured to always be performing at their best, without any vulnerabilities showing through. And they carry a painful silence, where it can feel like there’s no safe way to express the simple difficulty of getting through the day.

In the United States, while we are getting better at talking about mental health, we still fail in many ways when it comes to these conversations. That’s a serious problem for all of us, but it can be especially harmful for young people, particularly LGBT+ youth.

For individuals dealing with mental illness, it can be a wrenching, unmooring experience. For young people, it can be especially shattering, because they may have never seen their way through it before. Because of the silence and stigma that surround these topics, they may not think they know anyone who has. And for LGBT+ youth, who are likely already facing daunting challenges, they can feel particularly isolated.

But the truth is, many people have or will experience some kind of mental health condition in their lifetimes – most commonly depression or anxiety, but also potentially a more serious illness such as schizophrenia. One in five adults and youth will experience mental illness this year. And in the LGBT+ community, the numbers can be even higher.

To be clear, this has nothing to do with being LGBT+ and everything to do with how society treats the LGBT+ community. As the National Alliance on Mental Illness explains, we face health issues just like everyone else, but they’re compounded due to prejudice and other biases.

In our recent survey of more than 12,000 LGBT+ teenagers, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation saw in stunning detail the difficult challenges these youth face.

Seventy-seven percent of LGBT+ teens surveyed report recently feeling down of depressed. Only 26 percent of youth say they always feel safe in their school classrooms, and 67 percent have heard negative remarks about LGBT+ people from someone in their family. In addition, many youth in our community face the multiple stressors of racism and anti-LGBTQ discrimination. A high majority of LGBT+ youth of colour have personally experienced racism, and almost 90 percent have seen racism impact the lives of someone close to them.

While we are making inroads into addressing the issues, there clearly remains significant work to do. In addition to celebrating and focusing on compassion and inclusion, as a society we must acknowledge that many of us are struggling, and we must recognise that it’s a struggle we do not carry alone. Young people need to know that mental health challenges are not a result of weakness or a character flaw, nor tied to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

As a culture, as a community, and especially as adults we must take seriously the work to destigmatise this issue. If we can, and if it feels safe to do so, let’s talk about what we’re doing for our mental health. Let’s be a little more open about past or current struggles. Let’s show compassion with ourselves and others, and let’s acknowledge that mental health is just like any other aspect of health – it takes maintenance, it is complex and there will be aspects outside of our control.

And let’s eliminate once and for all the devastating, isolating myth that individuals struggling with mental illness are each struggling with it alone.

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