It’s Not Just a Phase, Mom!
April 8, 2020
LGBT+ Mental Health
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website “[LGBTQ+] adults are more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults to experience a mental health condition…[and are]…at a higher risk than the general population for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts…High school students who identify as [LGBTQ+] are almost five times as likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers…[and] 48 percent of all transgender adults report that they have considered suicide in the past 12 months, compared to 4 percent of the overall U.S. population.”
As upsetting as these statistics are, it’s nothing new to the LGBTQ+ community. The LGBTQ+ community is often met with discrimination, prejudice, harassment, familial rejection and denial of civil and human rights.
According to a 2015 survey done by The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), posted in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, “The prevalence of having been in a physical fight on school property was higher among gay, lesbian and bisexual students (11.2 percent) and not sure students (14.6 percent) than heterosexual students (7.1 percent)…The prevalence of having not gone to school because of safety concerns was higher among gay, lesbian and bisexual students (12.5 percent) and not sure students (10.8 percent) than heterosexual students (4.6 percent).”
Another survey report on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website on their National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Data Review reported that, “Among sexual minority adults aged 18 or older in 2015, 3.9 million had any mental illness (AMI), 1.4 million had serious mental issues (SMI) and 2.5 million had AMI excluding SMI. These numbers correspond to 37.4 percent of sexual minority adults who have AMI, 13.1 percent who had SMI and 24.3 percent who had AMI excluding SMI.”
In 2015, the U.S. Transgender Survey reported, “A staggering 39 percent of respondents experienced serious psychological distress in the month prior to completing the survey, compared with only 5 percent of the U.S. population. Among the starkest findings is that 40 percent of respondents have attempted suicide in their lifetime – nearly nine times the attempt suicide rate in the U.S. population (4.6 percent).”
All of these statistics, yet many people will not acknowledge the mental health issues that very much affect the majority of the LGBTQ+ community. It was decided we should pull stories from the statistics themselves. I headed off to join UTSA’s very own LGBTQ+ community and club, Spectrum, to hear community testimonies. Here we have the stories of struggle and hardship from four of their members.
First up, we have Katherine Salas who offered to share their own experience dealing with sexual and gender identity while struggling with mental health.
“I came from a very conservative and homophobic Mexican family where the men were expected to be tough and macho and not to be ‘un maricón,’” said Salas. “My father always expected a lot out of me being his only son. It was an overwhelming responsibility put on my shoulders, so much so, I tried to drown myself at one point. This led to a big depression period through my middle school and high school years, I felt like I was stuck in an endless loop of negative thoughts and emotions which evidently made me more introverted. I had been forced to come to terms with my bisexuality during my freshman year of high school when I had fallen in love with a boy in my class and we began texting back and forth. Unfortunately, my father found the texts and threw the biggest fit I’ve ever seen, beginning to throw stuff around and completely trashing my room, but he never once hit me. My mother cried, though it had more to do with the fact that I didn’t tell her than with me being bi. Though by the end of it my father forced me back into the closet and made me ‘promise’ I’d never be bi again. I agreed, but years later I properly took my mother out to Starbucks and finally came out to her, and even though she didn’t completely understand she is still very supportive. My father is already in denial about his son being bisexual and I wasn’t even going to attempt to explain my recent discovery about also being non-binary.”
Megan Sawyer also took a brave leap with her own story of sexual discovery and mental health struggles.
“I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at age 16, though it wasn’t a surprise since it ran throughout my family, especially with the women,” Sawyer explained. “I’ve always been an especially nervous child but my family members did not help the problem. Particularly my step-dad’s family, who is extremely conservative, and did not react well when my step-cousin finally got up the courage to come out to them. They didn’t disown him, which I think would have been a more merciful thing to do, but they were never the same towards him, meaner and more rude. I was already terrified about the concept of coming out myself; this just helped solidify the fact, and I decided then and there that I would never come out to them. If I wasn’t going to get disowned, I didn’t want to be trapped with a family that completely hated me, but at the end I had no choice, I was forced to come out due to the overwhelming pressure of my family members. This led to a lot of fights with my parents which led to my own home sometimes not being a safe environment for me to be in when dealing with my mental health.Throughout all my experiences I’ve learned to just not care what other people think, and that’s a fine line to walk across because it’s between not caring what people say and just not caring at all. I want to care about the opinions of my friends and close family and all that the world has to offer, I don’t want to let myself go numb to everything because sometimes there are good things that happen and they’re really good. I don’t want to be afraid of those things.”
An anonymous volunteer shared his story about the fears and struggles living in a world while being in the closet.
“I went to an all Catholic school when my discovery began, which already caused a lot of doubt within me,” he explained. “I had major depression going through high school and would often shut people out because I didn’t want to hold anybody back. Going through high school is already bad enough for LGBTQ+ people but going through Catholic school is about 10 times worse. I heard the horrible things that people said about the community and even though I knew there weren’t specifically aimed at me, they still hurt and scared me a lot.
“But even after that, I did eventually come out senior year. It wasn’t something I was too thrilled about doing but I just wanted to move forward with my life and have even a little bit of support with all the turmoil I felt inside. Thankfully, the people I came out to were really supportive and I am much happier now that I have them to fall back on when things get rough.”
Matthew Gourley, a member of Spectrum and co-leader of the Pan/Bisexual Caucus, also volunteered to be interviewed.
“I’m transgender, but I didn’t know it at the time, all I knew was that I had very bad depression and anxiety during middle school and high school, which makes a lot of sense now,” Gourley said. “Not only was I going through a sexual crisis but, unknowingly, I was also experiencing dysphoria. I would like to preface this by saying that not all trans people experience dysphoria, that doesn’t make them any less or more trans, this was simply my experience. I was very ignorant about anything that had to do with the LGBT community due to the fact that I went to a private Catholic school and only knew straight to be the norm. Most trans men focus on trying to get rid of their breasts but I wanted to cut off my hips. I was also in choir and hated my singing voice so I began to choke myself; I didn’t know this was considered self-harm. I didn’t know that any of the things I did to myself were considered self-harm because nobody talked about these things. Dealing with dysphoria and figuring out my sexuality was complete agony and it did lead me to attempting suicide once.
“I did eventually end up going to therapy where I found out I was trans and finally was able to receive the help I needed. Though at the time my parents thought I was going to therapy due to the recent passing of my grandfather, that was not the case. I tried to come out to my parents, which did not go well. My mom straight up told me ‘no, you’re not trans!’ while my dad cried and rambled on about religion and how it wasn’t right. My dad and I used to be really close but a few years back during a local comic-con he found out I had a girlfriend, and he went ballistic; ‘Don’t ever come home, I don’t ever want to see your face anymore!’ My mom was thankfully able to talk him down but our relationship was never the same afterward and it still hurts me a lot to this day. My dad terrifies me now, if he talks even a little bit too loud, I’ll start to freak out. I’m so used to lying that my automatic answer whenever somebody asks me if I’m part of the LGBT community is no, but I’ve been trying to get out of that habit.”
Bleak as these stories are, there is always a glimmer of hope to help LGBTQ+ individuals get through the day. They each had some form of support system, or someone they really admired and looked up to.
“Besides my sister, I have two very close friends who have been with me through thick and thin,” Salas said. “One lives here in San Antonio and the other at College Station but even with the distance we’re still close. The hidden secrets from school mates and family and were a safe haven to go to when my father was debating whether or not to kick me out of the house.”
“I had a high school biology teacher who was a gay man but he hadn’t said anything until someone had found his Facebook and outed him to the whole school,” Sawyer said. “Even though I was uncomfortable on his behalf by all the mean comments everyone was saying, he himself didn’t seem all that bothered by it. When the GSA was formed, he came to talk to us and I thought it was really cool because it gave us hope for the future, hope that there was somebody we knew who was part of the LGBTQ+ community and had survived through all the high school pettiness even after they’ve graduated.”
“I had a great support group of friends,” explained the anonymous volunteer. “But I’ll never forget the lesbian theater teacher we had. She was practically the best teacher we had at our school, but unfortunately when the administration found out she was gay they fired her.”
“I dated and became friends with people in the LGBT community which helped a lot in my self-discovery,” Gourley explained. “I learned a lot of helpful terms and about others like me. It helped break me out of the conservative bubble I had been sheltered majority of my life.”
As the interviews wrapped up, I found myself reflecting back on my own life as a once closeted member of the community while also balancing my mental health. My family also came from old traditions and strict religion. Mental health wasn’t really looked at as a real sickness because “it was all in your head” and anything beyond the norm of heterosexuality was “just a phase.” It still took a long time for my parents to fully accept who I am and even now they’re still struggling to understand. My mental health wasn’t acknowledged all that seriously until my physician suggested that I go get examined by a psychologist. They still struggle to understand the world that I live in but they’re still trying, which is a blessing that not a lot of people in this community have.