Young LGBT+ people twice as likely to struggle with their mental health

‘Even just the process of figuring out your sexuality is so stressful: never mind the pressure of hiding it, worrying someone will figure it out, or the anxiety of dating someone, being seen in public, or worrying about how your friends or parents will react.’

This is the reality of life for countless gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer young people across the country.

It may come as no surprise to many then that people aged 18 and under who identify as LGBT+ are twice as likely to experience issues with their mental health than people who do not consider themselves as such.

Following new research revealing these devastating statistics about the young queer community, some of them have spoken about how their mental health is intrinsically linked to their sexuality as part of the MHAW takeover.

‘The LGBT+ experience can lend itself to anxiety’

‘I don’t want to talk on behalf of other people, but I personally feel that the LGBT+ experience can really lend itself to anxiety,’ Rhianna Betts, 22, added to her comments above.

‘It can take over your thoughts entirely, and leave you on edge all the time. Once you have learnt that thought process of worrying, obviously that can also really spread into the rest of your life.’

Rhianna’s thoughts come after a study of more than 3,000 secondary school pupils, carried out by charity Just Like Us, found almost half of those who are LGBT+ say they have had, or currently have, depression – compared to 20% of those who are not.

In addition to this, half of LGBT+ young people report they have experienced an anxiety disorder at some point, compared to a quarter of those who are non-LGBT+. They are also more likely to suffer panic attacks.

‘I think at the most extreme end, being LGBT+ can cause a lot of long-term self-hatred and fear, so I’m also not surprised that a third of LGBT+ people have depression,’ Rhianna said.

‘It’s difficult sometimes to remember that things can get better when you’re stuck in a particular situation or thought process, especially if you’re unfortunately not surrounded by supportive people.’

Rhianna, who identifies as lesbian, said she now feels ‘lucky’ to be surrounded by a strong support network, but as she was growing up she had a ‘strong sense of being “different”‘.

‘I think it’s easy to underestimate how subtly lonely that can make you feel,’ she explained.

‘When I did figure out that I was attracted to women, I very much felt like it was wrong and something that I should hide.

‘There were a few years where I actively tried to repress any of those feelings, and it definitely left me feeling very low and anxious.

‘Particularly as a lesbian woman – even that label at the time would make me feel horrible. I didn’t want to be seen as something perverse, or predatory.’

Unfortunately her feelings as a young lesbian do not appear to be unique, with the survey results also revealing depression rates are highest among lesbians, who are three times more likely than non-LGBT+ young people to experience depression.

Rhianna, who is currently studying a master’s degree at University College London, said: ‘I think being LGBT+ has definitely had a big impact on my mental health. I don’t think I can separate the two out at all; my struggles with my sexuality have been so entwined with my own mental health. 

‘Just feeling like you’re hiding something, or that you have this awful secret weighing down on you can really take a toll.

‘Especially when you see or hear other people making remarks or jokes, or debating the “morality” of those exact things. I think that shame is a horribly pervasive feeling which can be difficult to ever fully get rid of.’

‘Homophobia stopped me from coming out’

Jonny Winbow, who usually defines as bisexual, agreed with Rhianna in that he thinks his mental health is ‘inherently linked’ to his identity.

The 21-year-old, who is studying politics at the University of Manchester, said: ‘I think, for a lot of young LGBT+ people, many mental health issues will be centred around affirmation and a lack of self-confidence around being an LGBT+ person.

‘I went to an all boys’ school and down to kind of homophobic overtones – and sometimes, overt homophobia – I was not out, which meant my mental health wasn’t at its best.

‘But as I got older and more comfortable being an LGBT+ person, my mental health improved significantly.’

He added though that being out and more confident in his identity was ‘not a fix’ and said it ‘needs upkeep’.

The charity’s statistics also show that young LGBT+ people who are black, disabled or rely on free school meals are also disproportionately affected by mental health issues.

‘They could become more isolated and secluded’ also spoke to expert Leah Davidson, a psychotherapist for Pink Therapy – the UK’s largest independent therapy organisation working with clients who identify as being gender or sexual diversities.

‘These statistics, sadly, don’t surprise me,’ she said, ‘I know it makes a huge difference if parents are supportive, but if they are not, there are lots of young people who do not come out, they become more isolated and secluded.’

Pointing to further statistics which suggest young LGBT+ people are at an increased chance of homelessness, Leah warned isolation could lead to an involvement in drugs, alcohol and sexual exploitation.

Young LGBT+ homelessness charity akt found almost a quarter of homeless people aged between 16 and 25 identify as LGBT+, and more than three quarters of those people believe coming out to their parents was the main factor.

And the risk of mental health issues increases for those who identify as transgender, the Just Like Us survey found, with young trans people being three times more likely to experience depression than non-LGBT+ young people.

Leah notes this may be because trans youths can require extra accessibility support, which may be difficult to come across depending on how supportive schools are.

She explained: ‘That includes access to changing rooms, toilets, gender neutral facilities, whether they have to take part in same same-sex sports – that all adds to body anxiety.

‘Then there’s the use of new names and pronouns, and remarks and all that stuff like, “You’re so gay.”

‘Some schools are doing it really well, and lots of young people are coming out, whether they are LGB or T.

‘But other schools do not have a clue. There’s lots of bullying, name calling and abuse.’

‘The same support everyone needs’

Leah works primarily with gender, sexuality and relationship diverse (GSRD) clients – so not just LGBT+ people, but also people who are in polyamorous relationships or sex workers, for example.

Pink Therapy helps train therapists and provides specialist courses to help people learn about how to work with these types of clients, and understand different lifestyles.

Although people from these diverse backgrounds need specialist support in some ways, Leah stressed in many ways they are the same as people from heteronormative backgrounds.

‘I would say GSRD people require, on the one hand, the same support everybody requires,’ she said.

‘But also they need [a therapist] to have some understanding of the prejudice and the specific struggles, questions and challenges that people from minority groups come up against. Because people from those groups should not have to educate us.

‘The other thing that is really important is people might come to you for a wide range of issues, but their sexuality for example isn’t necessarily the issue – it might be a relationship issue the same as we all have.

‘Of course it might be linked, but in many cases it just adds another layer.’

She said sometimes therapists not trained in these issues can ‘mistakenly’ link people’s problems to their diverse sexuality or relationship.

‘There are role models for us to look at’

The coronavirus pandemic has caused an increase in uncertainty and mental health issues in the population generally – but young LGBT+ people have been disproportionately affected if their support networks lie outside their households.

Leah said: ‘Young people are stuck at home a lot, and have no access to groups and can’t go out to safe places – especially if their families aren’t supportive.’

And that’s where charity Just Like Us comes in. Founded five years ago, it aims to provide support and empower young people to champion LGBT+ equality in their school lives, and take this outside the classroom too.

Some 85% of young LGBT+ people told the charity they still hear homophobic remarks, and the organisation hopes to change this by giving both school staff and pupils themselves the tools to actively celebrate this equality.

Rhianna and Jonny are both ambassadors for Just Like Us, which means they volunteer to speak to schools, workplaces and more to raise the profile of queer youth.

Jonny said: ‘The work Just Like Us does is showing young LGBT+ people – who maybe are just coming to terms with their gender or sexuality, or aren’t too sure – that there are role models for us to look at. To show that it might be tough right now, but it will be okay.

‘For me personally, that really would have helped. At school it could feel like being LGBT, or “different”, is negative, but hearing someone talk about changes that viewpoint and shows it is not – it is amazing.

‘The key point is visibility, and seeing people like them.’

Echoing Jonny’s thoughts, Rhianna added: ‘It just provides that framework for understanding yourself, and that level of normalisation that I never really had when I was growing up.

‘I hope that it can prevent some kids from having to go though those years of anxiety and stress trying to just figure out or doubting what’s going on inside your head.

‘And obviously, if these charities can help prevent discrimination or bullying, that will help so many children too.’

Chief executive of Just Like Us, Dominic Arnall, has called for more schools to send a positive message of acceptance to their LGBT+ pupils, particularly through the pandemic.

‘It’s clear that schools need to ensure these LGBT+ young people disproportionately struggling with mental health are supported,’ he said.

‘Schools can play a hugely positive role in this by making their environments safe and welcoming for vulnerable LGBT+ young people.

‘If any primary or secondary schools need help with LGBT+ inclusion, Just Like Us has free lesson plans and resources, we can organise school talks for secondary schools, and we’d really encourage all schools to sign up to take part in School Diversity Week.

‘We know that teachers and school staff are under immense pressure during coronavirus and that’s why at Just Like Us we’re doing everything we can to make LGBT+ inclusion as easy as possible.’

‘Hope for the future’

Jonny thinks that an increase in mental health awareness generally, in combination with a major event like the pandemic, has encouraged young people to become ‘more comfortable’ speaking about their mental health, ‘whether they are LGBT+ or not’.

But he added he would like to see more support for the 16- to 18-year-old age group, as he thinks there is a ‘severe lack of support’ for young people generally between childhood and adulthood.

Rhianna cautiously added she ‘hopes’ there has been an improvement in the mental health of young LGBT+ people – but thinks more work needs to be done.

‘I definitely see more schools and young people embracing the LGBT community – and also talking about mental health,’ she said.

‘It gives me a lot of hope for the future. However, I do think we are at this strange point where despite there being more representation and quite big gestures of acceptance, there is still a lot of discrimination taking place at a structural level.

‘LGBT+ children may not have parents who understand these issues, or even may be quite homophobic.

‘So despite more LGBT+ education taking place, there’s still a lot that needs to be done to offer that foundational support.’

Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected]

For more stories like this, check our news page. MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

  • Mental Health Foundation
  • Rethink Mental Illness
  • Samaritans
  • Mind

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the MHAW Takeover click here

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