Addressing the unique challenges and diverse experiences within the LGBTIQA+ community is crucial to fostering environments where individuals can feel safe, welcome and acknowledged.
Underrepresented communities like the Australian LGBTIQA+ are sadly no stranger to mental health challenges: members of the LGBTIQA+ community are two and a half times more likely to have been diagnosed or treated for a mental health condition in the past 12 months. Additionally, when community statistics reflect that 41.9% of the LGBTIQA+ community have considered suicide in the previous 12 months, and 1 in 5 transgender people have experienced suicidal ideation within the previous fortnight, a compassionate and tailored approach is required.
Despite these increased risks, not everyone who identifies as LGBTIQA+ will experience a mental health crisis – and no two individual experiences are the same. Recognising the diverse pathway to disclosure requires understanding, sensitivity and inclusivity.
Creating a safe and welcoming space that encourages disclosure and provides support starts with acknowledging the risk factors, using inclusive language, and understanding how to hold a compassionate, supportive and culturally sensitive mental health conversation.
Here’s why a tailored approach is beneficial and how to apply it when supporting the mental health of LGBTIQA+ Australians
Know the risk factors
To be queer or identify as LGBTIQA+ does not mean a person is experiencing mental health problems. In fact, being LGBTIQA+ can be a positive and empowering experience for many.
However, certain challenges within the LGBTIQA+ community can heighten the risk factors for mental health issues, including:
- Being part of a marginalised or underrepresented community group
- Discrimination, prejudice or abuse
- Actual or expected insensitive treatment or violence
- Medical intervention without consent, such as genital surgery on intersex infants
- Treatment that exacerbates feelings of exclusion.
Avoid harmful language
A huge part of making queer people feel welcome and safe is to focus on inclusive, compassionate language that is not harmful to the LGBTIQA+ community.
Examples of this include:
- Avoiding language or terms that exclude or hurt LGBTIQA+ people. This includes avoiding misgendering, using their preferred terminology in relation to their sexuality or identity, and avoiding out-of-date and offensive terms.
- Avoiding the usage of LGBTIQA+ terms, whether directed to an LGBTIQA+ person or others, as slurs, derogatory terms, as satire and jokes, or to express negative emotions or situations.
- Not placing emotional labour on LGBTIQA+ people to explain their identity or take part in conversations about their speech, person, or private life for others. Examples may include intrusive questions about their relationships, love life or sex life, forcing disclosure with others about sexuality, or questioning their identity based on preconceptions and myths.
- Not making assumptions or focusing excessively on:
- A person’s pronouns or how they’d like to be referenced
- The nature of their relationships or intimate connections
- A person’s behaviour, dress style or taste in music or art
- A person’s emotional, romantic or sexual attractions.
- Not focusing on an individual’s worldview, mental health or experiences solely from an LGBTIQA+ lens. It’s important that we follow an individual’s lead to determine whether their identity as a member of the LGBTIQA+ community is relevant.
Engaging in a compassionate, supportive and sensitive mental health conversation with an LGBTQIA+ person
When engaging in a mental health conversation with an LGBTIQA+ person, it is important to focus on the person, and not their identity. Every person has the right to be valued for who they are and what they bring as an individual. This means recognising the individual for their personal qualities or their contribution to their workplace, community or world around them, and respecting them as an individual.
Applying this approach is to avoid assuming that mental health problems or the need to engage in a mental health conversation are inherently tied to one’s LGBTIQA+ experience. Instead, you might choose to ask about the cause of their distress and what may help them during this time, tailoring support to their specific needs.
While you don’t need to focus the conversation on the individual’s LGBTIQA+ experience, there are some steps to take to ensure you are respectful and inclusive in your interaction. Support can come in many different forms, and respecting an individual’s choices regarding their appearance, name and pronouns is one of them – even if you may not fully understand them.
Like it is encouraged in many mental health first aid conversations, you can reflect the meaning of the person’s words in the conversation back to them, including how they reference themselves or others. For example, if a person is using “they” to reference a partner or themselves, following their lead and using this language shows that you are actively listening.
This idea of active listening is at the centre of mental health conversations. Actively listening involves creating a space for open and non-judgmental communication without rushing to provide answers or advice. Resist the urge to make comparative references to your own culture or relationships in an effort to relate to them. This is especially true if the conversation centres on a LGBTIQA+ person’s intimate relationships or identity, or in relation to their experience of exclusion or belonging within a family, workplace, group or community.
Check on safety
Safety is always a factor with mental health conversations. This is especially true when an LGBTIQA+ individual is facing challenges linked to bullying, harassment, or discrimination. If someone you are supporting discloses that they are currently experiencing this, you can provide further support by:
- Reminding them that they can report incidents to authorities, with LGBTIQ+ (or GLLO) Liaison Officers and Region Advocates at the state police, advocacy groups, or company leadership
- Sharing information about available counselling and support from LGBTIQA+ services such as QLife, ACON, or TransHub
- Affirming that they have a right to safety and respect
- Offering your support should they wish to report the incident.
Remember too that to disclose sexuality, gender-identity and the LGBTIQA+ experience is deeply personal. Respecting this means never forcing a person, or deciding for another person, to disclose their sexual identity or share knowledge of their challenges or experiences in such a way that outs them. Even if you believe disclosure is an essential step to creating an inclusive and welcoming environment, respect the person’s right to choose when and if they will discuss their sexual identity.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly represented the following statistic: “41.9% of LGBTIQA+ people have considered suicide in the past 12 months”. The earlier version misrepresented this as “attempted” instead of “considered” and has been corrected. Mental Health First Aid Australia apologises for this error.
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