How to be an ally and support LGBTQ people’s mental Health

LGBTQ people are 4 times more likely to develop depression and at higher risk of suicide than straight people. For Pride Month, mental health campaigner and Where’s Your Head At co-founder Natasha Devon MBE explores why this might be and what we can all do to help...

When you look at the groups of people statistically more vulnerable to mental ill health – immigrants, BAME, disabled and LGBTQ people – there is one screamingly obvious common thread which unites them all – discrimination. Of course, there are factors unique to each of these groups which contribute to higher rates of mental health issues, but underlying all of them is a higher likelihood of experiencing prejudice. Belonging is a key human psychological need. We are much less likely to achieve a state of mental wellbeing if we believe society is doing us a favour by ‘tolerating’ our presence.

Working as I do predominantly in schools, I have noticed there is a pattern whereby a person comes out (usually around year 8 or 9) and that’s when LGBTQ-specific education is introduced, usually with an emphasis on reducing bullying and acceptable language. This is symptomatic of wider attitudes in society – Unless someone tells us otherwise, we tend to assume everyone around us is straight. It’s only when we become aware of an LGBTQ person in our orbit that we amend our attitude to accommodate alternative ways of living.

Ultimately, this means that until or unless they come out publicly and repeatedly, or are ‘visibly queer’ in some way, LGBTQ people are doomed to spend their lives in environments where their very existence is either unacknowledged, or spoken about only in negative terms. Whereas racial or religious minority groups usually come from a long line of people like them they can defer to for advice, curiosity about sexuality or gender often feels like a burden you have to carry alone. This environment creates unconscious belief systems – a fear of being our authentic selves or even internalised homophobia or transphobia, meaning we begin to bully ourselves based on ideas we have absorbed from society.

I know this from first hand experience. I went to school during Section 28, a piece of legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher which forbade teachers from ‘promoting’ homosexuality in the classroom. In reality, this meant that it simply was not mentioned. Meanwhile I imbibed narratives from the media and peers about bisexuality, eventually believing that I must be hypersexual, ‘slutty’ or predatory. I was therefore reticent to speak openly about my sexuality for a long time, particularly in circumstances where I wanted to be perceived as ‘respectable’ or ‘professional’.

All this fed the self-hatred and lack of self-esteem which in turn fuelled the eating disorder which dominated my late teens and early twenties. I wouldn’t say homophobia was entirely responsible, but it certainly didn’t help.

Section 28 was abolished in 2003 and, fortunately, we now live in much more progressive times, but there is still a tendency to only address LGBTQ lives within the context of conversations about sex, rather than families and communities. To stop the cycle of discrimination, we need to create environments where LGBTQ are acknowledged even if they are not obviously present.

Once you notice heteronormative and cisnormative assumption (i.e. automatic and unthinking application of straight or cisgender norms) you’ll realise they are everywhere and they start from an incredibly early age. From boys being asked if they have a ‘little girlfriend’ in their primary class to pretty much every Disney film ending in a heterosexual smooch, it’s no wonder we learn that this is the only way to be ‘normal’.

To counteract this, we need to behave and speak as though there is always a queer person nearby and make a conscious effort to be mindful and inclusive of their experiences. It’s something we can all pledge to do immediately – notice and challenge assumptions which might make some people feel isolated and excluded – and if we all do it, it will represent a massive shift in cultural norms.

I’m not saying we need to go around asking kids if they have a little girlfriend, boyfriend or nonbinary friend in their class. What I’m calling for is an even more radical question like ‘how was school today?’ and letting the conversation be driven by their, rather than our, agenda.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to children. With COVID magnifying isolation and loneliness, there are likely millions of adults feeling cut off from the communities which celebrate their identity. We can all have a hand in lessening the impact of this by trying to inject acceptance and understanding into our every word and action.

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