By Madeline Hannan-Leith
For as long as she could remember, Sarah felt like she had to apologize for being herself. Not only for being a queer woman, but also for being someone who lives with mental illness. When Sarah came out as a lesbian, her friends and family were relatively supportive, but revealing her depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide wasn’t so straightforward. With little help to be found in her small town, Sarah struggled alone and in silence.
Sarah’s story, while distressing, is not unique. Because despite growing awareness, the topics of mental illness and suicide in LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) communities remain taboo. Many LGBTQ people, like Sarah, have been silenced or rejected when discussing mental illness, likely compounding thoughts of helplessness, isolation and depression.
Stigma—along with homophobia and transphobia—is likely what leads to this community’s disproportionately high rates of suicide. A 2015 review found that lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual people. In transgender communities, those rates are even higher: 43% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime.
Many in the LGBTQ community experience bullying, violence, discrimination and social rejection due to their sexual or gender identity. Even worse, many can endure discriminatory or ignorant attitudes from doctors or counsellors when trying to seek help. Targeted prevention strategies are needed if we are ever going to reach those in need. Here are four ways we can all help:
Learn more about suicide. Familiarize yourself with suicide prevention resources, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Consider taking a mental health education class to help recognize the signs of mental illness and suicide. You might also learn how best to respond when someone is in crisis.
Though progress has been made, discriminatory attitudes continue to impact the lives of many LGBTQ people. The best way to be an ally to the LGBTQ community is by taking action:
Talking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicide. In fact, refusing to talk about suicidal ideation can increase feelings of shame for those experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you think someone may be suicidal, ask them directly: “Are you thinking about suicide?” Offer help, let the person know you are there for them and you are taking their concerns seriously. Most important: Listen without judgement.
It is essential that we all work a little harder to understand suicide and mental health, particularly in the communities most affected by it. In a creative attempt to help raise awareness in the LGTBQ community, researchers at the University of British Columbia launched “Still Here,” a photography and art project featuring LGBTQ people who previously struggled with suicidality. To date, 50 LGBTQ people have participated, contributing more than 400 photographs. Sarah is one of these participants. She captured her experiences and perspectives on suicide by taking photographs and sharing her story.
The project offers a platform for individuals to learn more about the factors that lead LGBTQ people to consider suicide, and what is needed to prevent it. To extend the reach of this project, the “Still Here” team launched an online exhibit. The digital gallery has been visited by thousands of people worldwide—thousands of people, learning more about how it feels to be LGBTQ, living with mental illness.
By opening up and talking about suicide, we have the opportunity to combat stigma and dispel myths. Silence only makes things worse. This and every National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, do your part to raise awareness by starting a conversation. You just might save a life.
Madeline Hannan-Leith is a researcher at the University of British Columbia, who examines the experiences of mental illness and suicidality in LGBTQ women.
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