Mental Health Month “All queered out”

The relationship between the LGBTQ community and Mental Health has long existed. Someone who believed same-sex relationships to be a sin, may point to the mental health ‘sickness’ of those who are attracted to partners of the same gender. This goes back to the seventies where mental health and being queer or transgender, was considered a mental defect/illness. It was not until the early seventies that the bible for Psychiatrists changed this diagnosis and it no longer was considered a mental illness.

During this time of stigma, those who admitted to being queer or transgender were often subjected to camps and programs that attempted to ‘cure’ them of their ‘proclivity’ of course they were unsuccessful but they did a great job of messing up generations of queers, so much so that many stayed in the closet, marrying and having children and never ever admitting who they really were.

Someone who is anti-gay may argue, that means they have a choice because they choose to stay in the closet and marry, they can be normal after all!

There is however, nothing normal about pretending to be someone you are not, and this definitely can be one reason LGBTQ people suffer from a higher than average degree of mental illness.

If it’s an argument of which came first, the chicken and the egg, then you can cross-compare to other studies looking at marginalized and condemned groups such as racial minorities, and see that levels of mental illness rise when bigotry and condemnation in the larger society are directed toward that group. No surprise, hate begets mental illness. It’s not all in your head!

How can hate cause someone to be mentally ill if mental illness is not a mailable and ‘chosen’ ailment? Hate cannot cause someone to get cancer, so how can we argue mental illness is as serious as cancer?

Hate can lead someone to drink too much, smoke too much, and that can cause cancer. It is called an indirect relationship. Cause and effect. The same is true of hate and the LGBTQ community, if you are condemned, judged, shamed, picked on, hated and treated badly day after day, that can literally drive you out of your mind. More commonly, a pre-existing tendency toward certain mental illnesses is exacerbated and tipped over the edge.

This does not mean, anyone ‘chooses’ to be mentally ill, but like anything in life, extreme stress CAN bring on symptoms. They have long known this with Schizophrenia, Bipolar and Borderline Personality Disorder and of course, PTSD has its roots in society as does anxiety. You cannot remove societal influence from the development of a mental illness yet it is as ‘real’ as any other disease in terms of true manifestation and side-effects.

Historically gay and minority populations experienced a high degree of stress and fear. They were having to hide who they were, meet in secret, they could be arrested because their emotions were illegal if expressed physically, and they often had other concerns such as low-income, poor access to care in the community, nobody to talk to honestly and unanswered questions about their own identity.

Our society is typically Heterosexist and Heterodominant because the vast majority of people in our society are heterosexual. It is one thing to show two women kissing, and have a bit of bisexual fun, quite another to be a committed full-time lesbian. Most people don’t relate to that, they may try to understand but that’s like a white person understanding the experiences of a black person, you can only go so far with that.

Thus, LGBTQ are misunderstood at best, and not understood at all at worst, with pastiche and parody being the status-quo. Historically this was even more so, as it was an illegal ‘act’ to be with someone of the same gender sexually (and everyone considered the deviancy of gay sex to be the key to being homosexual rather than thinking for a moment it could be about something other than sex).

Unfortunately a large portion of gay men were so promiscuous it did not help the ’cause’ because they really did live the life style that heterosexuals feared. I do condemn this in the sense that I see no good coming out of sleeping with twenty strangers a night, and whilst that may seem homophobic of me to say, having read the history of HIV and AIDS I see a causal history there as to why homosexual men became one of the earliest groups to be significantly infected by HIV/AIDS. This set the gay cause way back because straight people condemned all gays outright for the actions of the few, and believed HIV/AIDS to be a gay-plague, which of course it was not.

Reading the history of this time, I tried to better understand what would lead gay men to be that promiscuous, my first thought was, a lot of straight men would do the same thing given half the chance! My second thought was, it’s about reaction. Gays were subjected to such strict secrecy and condemnation they could not really be ‘out’ and when finally some cities were tolerant enough to be relatively out, certain populations ran with it. I understand the reaction/action/reaction cycle it exists in every subjugated population to some extent, and every new generation reacts to their parents, it’s a cycle of over-throwing the old for the new. But the level of promiscuity in cities like NYC and San Fransisco was a contributing factor as to why HIV/AIDS initially hit the homosexual male population so hard.

When we consider what a heterosexual who knows little about homosexuality must have thought upon hearing that some homosexual men with HIV/AIDS were sleeping with twenty plus partners a night, as well as doing drugs, it’s not hard to see why there was another wave of backlash against the gay community en mass.

That said, times have somewhat changed and whilst you can still find ‘bath houses’ and gay men (and some lesbians!) who wish to be as promiscuous as those early days, there is also a greater appreciation for actual relationships among the homosexual population. This should be emphasized more in our culture, as heterosexuals still believe homosexuality is about sex, and it is often a very small part of what goes into being a homosexual. The stereotypes are hurtful to the community as a whole, those include the idea that all lesbians are ugly, all queer men are paedophiles, all lesbians are men haters, all bisexuals are sex-addicts, all gay men are perverts.

Going back to mental health … when HIV/AIDS first hit, there were not enough resources to help the gay community, and there was therefore, even less help mentally. After the crisis began to die down and some treatments that worked began to help people live longer and HIV/AIDS was no longer a literal death-sentence a strange thing occurred…. there was a mass influx of extreme depression among the survivors of the ‘gay plague’ as it was known.

Survivor guilt and the depression that comes from severe illness and PTSD (seeing all your friends die) are HUGE factors in the development of mental illness. Some survivors actually deliberately stopped taking their HIV/AIDS medication and let themselves sicken and die because of not being able to stand surviving. They felt they didn’t deserve it. Why me and not my friends?

This was exacerbated by virtually NO resources for gay individuals who needed to talk about what they experienced, witnessed and felt. This still stands, in most cities throughout the US there are no specific mental health services for the homosexual and bisexual and transgender populations.

During my studies as a psychotherapist I sat in a large room with over a 1000 counselors on a briefing about ‘homosexuality and mental health’ during which everyone was told that to be homophobic or intolerant of homosexuality, was incompatible with being a mental health professional. Sounds good huh? Not so good. Of the 1000 there I would easily hazard a guess and say that a third, possibly half, were somewhat prejudiced, very ignorant and possibly homophobic. I say this after hearing them speak, the questions they asked, the people they were.

This is not condemning someone who is homophobic, any more than I would someone who is racist. It is your right. But it’s not legal and it’s not moral. So given this, those people have the difficulty of being legally required NOT to be what they actually privately are. Do you think many of them would admit this? Do you think they would stand up and say ‘I am against homosexual relationships’ and possibly lose their license? For those who are homophobic or anti-gay, you may be shaking your heads and saying ‘this is why it should not be legalized, you are forcing people to feel what they do not’ and I agree with the latter statement.

If you are homophobic you probably shouldn’t be a therapist with the exception of working in a religious community for like-minded people.

If that sounds extreme, well it is. Just as I would say if you are racist you should not work in a public setting but you would be fine in say, a community that supported your views and this cuts both ways (white and black).

LIkewise, if you are sexist, don’t work with the opposite gender.

I’ve been told that when you are a ‘ist’ you should work through your feelings and you should take clients who push your buttons. I don’t agree. Therapy is a fragile experience, and people pick up on intolerance. When I was training I saw and heard enough people to see, they KNOW when you are not comfortable with them. The same goes for ignorance, there is no place for ignorance and therapy when it comes to treatment. If you don’t understand it, refer, refer, refer. To someone who does.

The problem is funding, there are no funds for the queer community because it’s seen like Planned Parenthood as a problem more than anything else.

So if gays don’t have access to good mental health services (and other services) is it any wonder they have higher percentages of certain diseases and mental health issues?

The bottom line is; LGBTQ populations exhibit higher levels of anxiety, depression and alcohol/drug abuse than the standard population. This is not because they are all sex-addicted club fiends who pour drugs down their throats whilst sleeping with twenty partners a night. But the reality of this does lead ignorant people to label mental health as a weakness and point to this as an example. Some even go back to the idea that mental health is a perversion of nature, just as the pilgrims did when they put mentally ill people to death or locked them up.

It doesn’t take long to learn about a group of people you have nothing in common with and it can go a long way. Typically Native Americans ask that therapists working on reservations be of Native American heritage. Some say it should not matter who the helper is, it is more about their willingness to help.

I disagree. It does matter. Just as if you are black and you have been subject to racism you may wish to see another person of color, there’s nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with being female and wanting a female gynecologist or therapist.

More gay people need to educate the majority about the specific issues relating to their population so those heterosexual therapists can actually be of some help to queer populations. Even more than that, those therapists who are anti-gay or prejudiced should recuse themselves. Yes – step away – don’t see homosexual patients – do them a favor!

Currently the accepted protocol is to be objective and even if ‘you are personally anti-gay’ you can be objectively helpful to a gay client. That’s ridiculous, no you cannot. I have a friend who is fairly anti-gay and works as a therapist and he is not ever going to be helpful to a gay client and can do more damage than good. Period. I have told him this but until the system changes, his boss and other leaders will insist that anyone, irrespective of their personal beliefs, treat gay clients.

Let’s change this…. and some other things and maybe the rates of mental illness will begin to decline in the LGBTQ population and with it, the high rates of suicide.

 

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Mental Health Month “If you weren’t so lazy!”

We’ve all heard the mom of a teen accuse them of being lazy. If you just did more, you could accomplish xyz.

For a teen who prefers bed to getting up going to school it’s not a big deal. When it’s a depressed person or anxious person who is told this, it’s tantamount to character assassination but how can we tell the difference between laziness and the inertia that is one of the side-effects of prolonged depression?

Laziness is where you don’t want to do something enough to do it.

Inertia is where you may wish to do something but cannot summon what it takes to do it.

And if you are able to get up and do something, then does that mean you’re lazy when you cannot? If you have the strength to achieve one day but not the next, is that saying something about your will power?

With the best will in the world anyone who has had anxiety/depression or some other mental illnesses, will attest, they’d like nothing better than to wake up feeling like they want to go jogging with their friends along the river side, or take a boat ride out on the lake, or read a book they’ve been dying to read, or start fixing up that DIY home-project of replacing the windows.

A lazy person chooses not to do these things, they may not even want to and prefer to have someone else do them.

It isn’t a choice if you simply cannot do it despite every desire to.

But surely if you put more effort in?

The impact those kinds of statements can have is dangerous. What’s the implication? Someone who doesn’t (fill in the blank) is not pushing themselves, making enough effort. Bottom line – failure.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious, chances are you are quite aware already of how disappointing it is, not to be able to do what you want to do. Being reminded of it, doesn’t motivate a person. It is not the same as pulling the teen out of bed because they are sleeping in and wasting the day, and we do a disservice to those who are depressed by thinking they can snap out of it ‘if only they do this’

But like anything it’s a fine line, because on the other hand, allowing someone we care about to be depressed and ‘wallow’ is not the answer either. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of not locking yourself away from others, avoiding the world and stimulation, when depressed. It may feel bad to get out and do things but guaranteed, it is worse to stay home and dwell. The distinction is in how we use language, avoiding blame phrases to ensure we’re not condemning someone inadvertently.

Depression like any disease can lead people to feel ‘half-alive’ and the last thing you want to do when you are half alive is go swimming or BBQ or socialize. Sometimes if it’s really bad there is nothing for it but call in a mental health day and spend it doing something comforting, hoping the crisis will pass. But if you find yourself in a rut, the loathed things may be the very things you do need to try to do.

If someone in your life makes you feel badly for not ‘trying hard enough’ explain to them depression is a consistent effort, of trying to do things others don’t even have to try to do. Help them understand the analogy of trying to push a bolder up a hill single-handed each and every day. Then next time they imply you’re just too lazy, maybe they’ll catch themselves.

Equally, take responsibility, if history proves that getting out even if it seems impossible, may be beneficial in some ways if only to get your blood flowing, try your hardest to make it happen and if you cannot do it today, aim for tomorrow. Never give up.

If the people who are in the lives of those suffering from depression and anxiety stand in solidarity and do not give up on them, there will be less feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Patience really can be a virtue, as well as considering that how and when we say things impacts a vulnerable person far more than we might be aware of.

Lastly, if you’re not able to move from the sofa today, don’t berate yourself, you tried, you did your best for today and tomorrow you’ll try again. If you see life as a series of efforts, you will soon see that some of those efforts pay off and you do keep moving, maybe at your own pace but nonetheless a pace. Don’t try to be like others who are not going through what you are going through, it doesn’t mean you are less than it means you are listening to yourself and your needs and being realistic about things. Motivating yourself as much as you can does work, but holding yourself to impossible standards, usually sets up feelings of failure.

We live in a society that reveres being ‘too busy’ and condemns ‘not being busy enough’ but if we see this as shallow advice and find a balance that works for us, instead of guilting ourselves over not being enough we can stop and appreciate our own rhythm. We are after all supposed to be living, not just running through life. Finding our own pace and avoiding the stigma of being judged for being at a different pace, means less guilt all round.

Mental Health Month “You have everything going for you! Why are you still sad?”

One of the most common issues with people suffering from a mental illness that produces depression of some kind (and many do, as well as many diseases whose byproduct can be depression, such as Parkinson’s Disease) is; My life is good, I know that, and everyone else knows it and often they ask me – you have everything going for you, Why are you still sad?

Does the problem seem obvious?

And yet … given how many people are routinely told this BY PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM there is some disconnect.

Why?

I will tell you, someone I was close to used to say this all the time about ‘other’ depressed people but never myself. It became obvious if I were not me, they would be saying it about me, and not saying it, doesn’t mean not thinking it. The rush to judgement expressed by those looking in from the outside can be as damming as any mental illness symptom. It can leave you feeling worthless, ungrateful, evil, wrong-headed, greedy and crazy.

But ask yourself this …

If depression were cured by ‘having everything’ many people who are depressed would not be depressed. After all, whilst we know certain economic factors can exacerbate depression (money worries, chronic health issues, chronic poverty) there is nothing to say the rich suffer less than the poor. But if the commonly held belief that ‘having everything’ should prevent depression why is anyone with a good life depressed?

Quite simply because depression doesn’t owe its existence to circumstance. Circumstance can trigger, evoke, worsen, any mental illness (or physical one for that matter) but it doesn’t always cause it. Again, we have to be mindful that there are varying degrees for everything. You can be temporarily depressed about the loss of a job, you can be medium-term depressed about the loss of a parent, or you can be Dysthymic meaning you have long-term-unremitting depression. Otherwise known as Clinical Depression.

Assuming depression or other mental illness, is not fleeting and circumstance based, then it’s fair to assume, circumstance would have little effect on its ‘cure’

That’s like saying I got cancer from smoking if I quit my cancer will go into remission. Not so easy.

Most people don’t ‘get’ depression, most people develop depression over time, for a multitude of reasons and non-reasons. It doesn’t occur over-night (except in the circumstantial kind) but it can rear its ugly head over night once established. Hence why depressed people are often considered ‘flaky’ because with the best will in the world, the next day you just can’t.

So … why are you still sad? Because if you could do anything to stop being you would and you probably have (done nearly everything) and (clearly) it hasn’t worked sufficiently to ‘cure’ what ails you and turn you into Pippi Longstocking.

Next time someone effectively accuses you of ‘not being happy enough’ (read: Not grateful enough) for your ‘wonderful life’ remind them, depression is not a choice, anxiety is not a choice, doing yoga and appreciating a tree is not going to turn you into a different person over night.

That doesn’t mean change cannot be a positive thing – it goes almost without saying that we know certain life-choices make HUGE impacts on depression/anxiety et al. I could fill a blog JUST on those choices and that’s why I’m not, because there are tons of blogs out there, just google ‘how to cure depression’ and you will find them.

But after you have done all that IF you still feel the way you did before or some semblance of it, do not let others bring you down further by feeling you are an ingrate.

An ingrate is someone who has a fabulous life and doesn’t appreciate it.

A depressed person is someone who (might have a fabulous) life and is unable to fully appreciate it because of their mental illness (but boy do they try!)

Keep trying! One step at a time. We break the stigma by sharing our voices.

Mental Health Month

Fortunately quite a few people are making time for this important subject. Raising awareness.

Before you click off thinking; “I’ve heard this before / I know this already” consider the following;

  1. If you have not suffered from a mental health issue you’re in the minority

2. More people die from mental health influenced factors than anything else

3. There is today more depression in the western hemisphere than ever before and our answer is to medicate using medication that is poorly proven to resolve depression and was only ever meant as a temporary solution, with therapy a rare and restricted ‘luxury’

4. We are cutting back so many mental health resources we now have less than we did in 1970, yes that means we’re going backwards not forward

5. Whilst some mental health issues are better known and understood today than 40 years ago, the terrible truth is … they are judged just as much as they were before people knew more about them and those who suffer from mental illness are often pushed to breaking-point by others who see mental-illnesses as a “choice” even by carelessly chosen words.

Words like – Depression is looking back / anxiety is looking forward / wellness is in the present.

People may say things like ‘snap out of it’ and be well meaning even but imagine saying that to someone who has cancer?

The implied condemnation / judgement / criticism or just put-down in many ‘helpful’ comments furthers the progression of the disease.

Ultimately mental health is seen as a sign of character. If you are mentally ill you have a weak character. If you are not mentally ill you have a strong character. Follow the progression of that.

Strength does not come into whether someone is mentally ill or not, any more than if someone has breast cancer. But like blaming a smoker for their lung cancer, most people see mental illness as something that someone can change ‘if they just tried’ and more of a character flaw, a negativity, a bad attitude, than a crippling, life-reducing disease.

Still think we don’t need to talk about mental illness?