Guest writer Laura Finlay writes on the importance of LGBTQ Societies for the positive mental health of LGBTQ students.
I’ve been asked a lot of times by a lot of people why there are a need for gay bars, LGBTQ support groups, and even why colleges need LGBTQ societies. These people usually go on to give about about what they see as self-imposed segregation, and think that we make ourselves different by acting different and by socialising in different places. My answer to these people is always the same. It’s nothing to do with segregation, or a need to be different. It’s to do with the concept of a safe space, somewhere we can go without being afraid, somewhere we can just ‘be’, without the fear of homophobic slurs at best, or being gay bashed at worst.
Whenever the subject of LGBTQ mental health comes up, my mind always goes back to one particular night about 3 years ago. I was in Pantibar with a large group of people. At the time, I was tossing around the idea of running for USI LGBT Rights Officer, and what my main interests and campaigns would be if I ran. There were 11 of us at the table, of different ages, from different backgrounds and from different places…. And we were all comparing the effects of our anti-depressant medications, and how good/irritating our counsellors were. That was the moment that really drove it home to me, that we have a serious problem here.
I don’t want this article to be all about facts and figures, but we’ll need to address at least a few of them. The LGBT Lives Survey (Mayock et al, 2009) contained a lot of chilling statistics about LGBTQ mental health in Ireland. In the publication, they refer a lot to the idea of ‘minority stress’, which is “how the experiences of stigmatisation, discrimination, social exclusion and harassment can have negative mental health consequences for members of minority groups such as LGBT people. Minority stress places people at higher risks of developing mental health problems.” And that alone is why we need LGBTQ societies in colleges. They’re a place to feel included, where a LGBTQ student can feel less isolated and most importantly, they’re a place where you can be yourself. I’ll never forget my first UCD LGBT coffee morning. I’m from Roscommon, there aren’t that many gays left in the village, so it was a really empowering experience to be in a room full of people like me. Just the fact that there was this group of people I could hang out with and not feel like an outsider was in itself amazing.
According to the report, the most common age for people to realise their sexual orientation or gender identity is 12, but the most common age for people to start coming out is 17. When you look at those numbers in relation to 16 being average age of first self-harming among the most vulnerable LGBTQ people, and 17.5 being the average age of the first suicide attempt amongst the most vulnerable LGBTQ people, it’s clear that younger members of the LGBTQ community need support. The average time period for young LGBTQ people to conceal their identity is 5 to 7 years, which “coincides with puberty, school and a critical period of social, emotional and vocational development. The period prior to coming out to others was particularly stressful because of fear of rejection and isolation” The report goes to on say that “There are 3 common LGBT-specific stresses: fear of rejection when considering coming out; negative school experiences; and experiences of harassment and victimization.” 27% of people who completed the survey had self-harmed and 85% of these did so more than once. 18% had attempted suicide, and a third of those aged 25 years and under had thought seriously about ending their lives within the past year. With statistics showing that 58% of respondents reported homophobic bullying in their schools, 40% of whom were verbally threatened, and 25% physically threatened, causing 20% of them to miss school because they were afraid, then it’s obvious that having somewhere to go just a couple of years later is an amazing thing.
We’ve all seen the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign, and while yes, no one should have to wait for it ‘to get better’, the sad fact of the matter is that college is the first time many LGBTQ people have a chance to truly be themselves. 3rd level is the ‘better’ for them. There is a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done when it comes to promoting positive LGBTQ mental health in this country and an active and vibrant LGBTQ society is a good start down this road.
If anyone wants to read the full results of the survey, see:
National LGBT Helpline: 1890 929 539