Originally published in FUSE, November 2010
On the 22nd of September, Tyler Clementi, a young man studying music at Rutgers University, walked up to the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey and then threw himself to his death. He did so only days after two of his roommates’ streamed footage of him having sex with another man live on the internet.
This tragic loss was just one of many high profile incidents over recent years. With it, the issues of queer bullying, mental health issues for queer people and the extremely high rate of suicide for queer people has once again been highlighted as issues needing urgent attention.
Growing up as a young queer man it very quickly became clear that depression was simply part of life for many queer people. For me, it began largely after I came-out as the realisation that I was living in a world where some did not accept me became a reality. With it came an immense feeling of sadness that most of the time I did not understand.
However, I was one of the lucky ones. My family was nothing but supportive and overall my friends were great too. Many people I knew however were not so lucky. Some had family that rejected them outright, others had friends who bullied them; many suffered from both. For many this lead to severe depression; a sense and feeling of being alone and isolated from a world that didn’t accept you. For some this escalated into attempted suicide (I am lucky to have never known someone who has committed suicide).
The statistics around queer mental health issues are stark. A research scoping paper commissioned by the national depression initiative, Beyond Blue, in December 2008 found that same-sex attracted people, in particular women, are the most susceptible group to depression and suicide in our community. According to the study, in any twelve month period, approximately 42% of queer people suffer from some form of mental illness (this includes affective disorders, anxiety and substance abuse), compared to fewer than 20% of heterosexual-identifying people.
The realities are the worst for young people. According to the paper, some studies show that more than 50% of young queer people have suffered from severe anxiety or depression, with approximately 42% of young queer people attempting suicide at some point in their life. The study found that young gay men were 3.7 times more like to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts; a figure that increases for same-sex attracted women and even more for bisexual people.*
Yet, even with such strong statistics, and despite increasing attention being put onto mental health issues, queer mental health has often been forgotten as an issue needing attention. Whilst many have spent decades putting huge amounts of work providing support services and running campaigns to end discrimination, funding has continued to be short and no national organisation has put any major resources into addressing the problem.
There are even reports that Beyond Blue, Australia’s largest mental health organisation has repeatedly ignored the queer mental health crisis. After re-releasing its issues paper ‘Mental Health, Depression and Anxiety in Same-Sex Attracted People’ in June 2009 (after initially releasing the report in January 2008) criticism began to flow that the organisation wasn’t doing anything to address the problem. In June 2009, queer activist Rob Mitchell argued that Beyond Blue had only released their initial report after significant pressure from queer activists and even after releasing the report they continued to refuse to put money into addressing the problem.
Even now, neither Beyond Blue, nor any other major mental health organisation, has any major projects or campaigns addressing this issue. Whilst small scale work continues from committed people across the country, there is a lack of resources to aid any form of national campaign. Whether these organisations will conduct these campaigns in the future is yet to be seen.
There are clear reasons why some queer people suffer from mental health issues more than their straight counterparts. Evidence shows that there are clear and obvious links between social stigmatisation, discrimination and isolation and mental health problems. Whilst official discrimination is now limited in Australia, there is still a high level of low-level queerphobia in the country; something that has a clear effect on many queer people.
What is unclear however is why, given the serious nature of queer mental health problems, the issue has continued to be ignored. Whilst one could easily say that it is a case of queerphobia from mental health organisations and those who fund them, there is not clear evidence that this is the case (although it much be considered a factor). It is possible that the most prominent reason for the lack of action on this issue is that tackling queer mental health issues requires a lot more work than awareness raising and providing easily accessible treatment options. Tackling queer mental health problems requires tackling the high levels of low-level queerphobia that exists in our society, particularly that targeted at young people. Possibly more than any other mental health issue, queer mental health problems require an approach that is focused on preventative health – it is not until we tackle discrimination that we are going to be able to solve the queer mental health crisis.
This has been a problem for the mental health lobby for a number of years. In the initial stages of what is becoming the mental health revolution, campaigns and funding have been focused on awareness raising, service delivery and treatment. This unfortunately forgets that a large percentage of mental health problems are preventable with the right proactive measures. In some cases this means giving people access to services such as youth groups where they are able to discuss issues in their lives, whilst for others it means tackling some of the serious social issues that still dominate our society. In cases such as queer mental health, this means tackling queerphobia within our society and particularly within our schools. This is a difficult task. Anti-discrimination campaigns require devotion to longer term change, rather than finding short term solutions. Campaigns such as this would be hard to measure and somewhat difficult to implement. The long term solutions however, would see the results we so desperately need.
However, the unfortunate reality is that there is a queer mental health crisis; a crisis that is predominately caused by the way our society operates. Tackling this crisis therefore does not just mean investing in treatment programs, but rather preventative programs aimed at ending discrimination and social stigmatisation.
If we don’t begin to tackle this problem we will continue to be shocked and saddened by deaths such as Tyler Clementi’s. I know I don’t want to live in a society where anybody feels as though they have to do what Clementi did, but I am sure that until we tackle the queer mental health crisis these sorts of stories will continue.
* Note: The Beyond Blue study was based on a literature review. This meant that some statistics were unavailable due to a lack of research and not all statistics presented are from Australia. The study can be found at: http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=4.1255