LGBTQ+ and Mental Health: Tailor-Made Support
By Anthony T. Eaton
We are in a mental health crisis and no one is immune. According to Our World Data from 2018, 970 million people worldwide have a mental health disorder. Anxiety is the most common mental health disorder in the world, affecting 284 million people.
What is also significant is how certain segments of the population are impacted by mental health issues at a greater percentage than others. This is especially true of the LGBTQ+ community.
According to a 2017 psychiatry.org report, LGBTQ+ individuals are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance misuse compared with heterosexual individuals.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse finds that gay, lesbian, and bisexual adolescents are 90% more likely to use alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual counterparts. They also found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are more likely to drink heavily and binge drink more than their heterosexual counterparts.
For transgendered individuals, rates and risk factors of addiction are considerably higher than those of their LGBT and straight peers, shedding light on the problems that still confront them.
These findings are not new, we have known for a long time that members of the LGBTQ+ community are affected by mental health and substance abuse issues at a higher rate than their straight counterparts. While being LGBTQ+ and out has become more accepted and positively represented in our society, the pressures to maintain that acceptance have only increased with political and social unrest. This doesn’t even account for the impact of the worldwide COVID pandemic.
The same psychiatry.org report states that LGBTQ+ individuals are more than twice as likely as heterosexual men and women to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime.
Thankfully, the resources we have as a community to address these issues have also increased and become easier for us to obtain. I had the opportunity to speak with Marc Svensson who is an LGBTQ+ mental health advocate, social scientist, researcher, and the founder of Helsa, based in the U.K.
You founded Helsa in 2019, what was the motivation and inspiration for that?
I am a social scientist, researching sexual and gender identity formation and the relationship with stress, mental health, and resilience, as well as happiness and fulfillment. My research is focused on addressing the mental health gap that exists between the LGBTQ+ community and the general population. I appreciate that research alone will not close the mental health gap so I founded Helsa to improve mental health and wellbeing in the LGBTQ+ community using a holistic approach offering research, support, and training.
The platform you created is relatively new, how did you start out?
Although Helsa was founded 2 years ago, we only launched the digital platform in May 2020. We secured initial investment from Benthal Green Ventures (BGV), Europe’s leading early-stage tech for good VC, early on, and then joined the third cohort on Conception X, a fantastic program that turns PhD researchers into venture scientists, in February 2020. We were selected as one of the finalists on the Conception X program and presented at their Demo Day in November of last year, so we have had great support since the very beginning.
At the start we focused primarily on the support side, developing wellbeing tools and therapist matching algorithms, to help LGBTQ+ people learn about their mental health and find a therapist that fits their unique needs and concerns.
Can you tell me more about that?
By taking the matching questionnaire on the platform it helps identify the right therapist for the person seeking support. As a user you are asked a number of questions relating to therapy methods, specialty, therapist demographics, cost and location. We then provide you with a matching percentage score for each of our partner therapists and suggest the top three matches. We are still a young company but have seen consistent growth in users and whenever we do a marketing push, we see the numbers really go up. We started off with 22 partner therapists and now have just over 50. At the beginning of this year, we officially added the training and research sections to the platform as well. The training workshops have really taken off this year. We are currently working with a wide variety of different organizations, from online fashion retailers and food delivery companies to the NHS.
Helsa delivers research-based, educational, entertaining, and inspirational training workshops on LGBTQ+ topics such as identities, education, awareness, and mental health, in different formats and lengths. https://www.training.helsahelps.com/
How has the pandemic affected your ability to provide services?
We are a digital mental health provider. Unfortunately, mental health issues have soared during the pandemic so there is a higher demand for our services. When we started out back in 2019 and recruited partner therapists, quite a few were resistant to delivering therapy sessions online, as that was a requirement, but as soon as the pandemic hit everyone was forced to move online, there was no longer a choice if you wanted to continue working throughout the pandemic. On the other side, the pandemic has also created more competition. Furthermore, as much as there is a higher demand for mental health support, many of the people how need it the most don’t have the resources, especially if you have, for example, lost your job. We have seen much higher demand for the partner therapists on the lower end of the rate scale, and a demand for other less expensive support alternatives.
Where are there opportunities to provide more support to the LGBTQ community when it comes to mental and emotional wellness?
Today many companies are supportive of their LGBTQ employees, but are they doing enough to address the unique issues and discrimination we still face in and out of the workplace? That is one area we are focusing specifically on now.
Any plans on expanding your services beyond your current service footprint?
On the training side, we are continuously developing and improving our training workshop offering. I am currently working with two partner therapists in developing a specific training workshop focused on trans and non-binary identities, mental health, and inclusion, as discrimination and hate towards the trans community is a serious problem right now. Just like with the fight for minority sexuality rights, education is key to improve the situation for trans people. Both partner therapists identify within the trans community themselves and primarily see trans clients, so they are ideal to develop and deliver training workshops on this topic. We see our training workshop demand grow significantly throughout the rest of the year.
On the support side, we are working on offering more tailormade services for specific issues we have identified as being in high demand. One of them is the trans community, as already mentioned, another is parents to LGBTQ+ kids. We are looking at ways of supporting parents in how they can be better and more supportive with their children. We are also looking at offering a peer-to-peer support service in the not-so-distant future.
With greater acceptance, we have also seen a shift in how those in our community identify. We have gone from the “Gay and Lesbian” community to being the LGBTQ+ community. While this is great, what is the impact of this shift?
Young people are much more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ today, and also more likely to identify as something other than gay or lesbian. Some surveys suggest as many as 20% of Gen Z and Millennials identify as something other than straight. The biggest increase is in people identifying with a plurisexual identity, i.e. bisexual, pansexual or queer. Young people are more likely to reject binary concepts of both sexuality and gender identity, so also more likely to identify as trans or non-binary. I personally welcome this shift away from the binaries. I am all for challenging, and even dismantling, both, but in particular the gender binary. Many young people see traditional gender roles as outdated and no longer serving a purpose, and I agree with that sentiment.
This means that the LGBTQ+ community is again challenging society’s norms. If we look at mental health in the community, gays and lesbians are generally doing better than plurisexul identifying people, and significantly better than trans folks. This is to a certain degree because we have fought for our rights, against the heteronormative society, in accepting same-sex love and relationships. Now we are facing a similar fight for other groups in our community, for them to love outside the sexuality binaries, i.e. “you are either straight or gay”, as well as shaping their gender identities away from the traditional gender binaries. As a community we have always fought against and challenged, the heteronormative structures our society is built on, the fight has just shifted from ‘acceptance of same-sex love’ to ‘breaking binary concepts of both sexuality and gender’.
Unfortunately, we are living in a more polarized world and we see the push back especially in political positions both in the U.S. and the U.K. This has a tremendous effect on those who face continued discrimination or the potential loss of rights they have gained.
Explore Helsa’s article library, to learn more about general LGBTQ+ mental health concerns, how therapy can help you, and other useful advice on how you can live a more happy and fulfilling life. https://www.helsahelps.com/explore
What can we do as individuals to support those who are or may be suffering from some kind of mental health issues?
It’s important that we create an environment in which it’s ok to struggle with our mental health. We need to remove the stigma associated with it. What we can do as friends, colleagues, or family members of someone who might be struggling is to clearly show that we are there to listen and support them, on their conditions and in their time. I am a great believer in straightforward communication. Let them know that you are there for them if and when they should need it, but of course, don’t force your support or help on anyone who doesn’t want it. It’s incredibly important to know that you are not alone, that you have people around you that love and care for you. Creating that environment for someone goes a long way.
What advice can you offer to someone who may be facing challenges with their mental health?
It would very much depend on the severity and the specifics of their mental health concerns. If the concerns are severe, I would advise them to seek professional help, through their local practitioner, or other professional support services available to them. If the concerns were less severe and they believed they could manage them by themselves I would offer them two pieces of advice. Firstly, reach out to your friends and family and let them know that you are struggling. As the saying goes “a problem shared is a problem halved,” and should you find yourself struggling more than you anticipated and needing support they are already aware. Secondly, come up with constructive ways of breaking your negative thought patterns.
When you find yourself starting to ruminate on discouraging and despairing thoughts, break your negative thought patterns by taking your mind elsewhere. Taking a 10-15min time-out from your daily routine, either forcing your mind to focus on thoughts or memories that make you happy and hopeful, such as people you love or things you have achieved or plan to achieve, in life. Or by going for a short walk or bike ride, consciously focusing your mind on sensory inputs in your surroundings.
Although Helsa is a UK-based organization, remote services have increased in many countries as a result of COVID and in many ways make it easier for people to seek help as it removes a barrier.
In the U.S. there are a number of virtual services to provide support to the LGBTQ+ community. This is especially beneficial to those who may live in communities that do not have an LGBTQ+ health or community center.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health problem help is just a phone call away.
Marc has published several academic papers on LGBTQ+ identities and mental health as well as presented at numerous conferences, webinars, and training workshops.
To learn more about Helsa and its services visit their website at https://www.helsahelps.com