Vols for CONTACT Care Line, the University of Tennessee student organization, hosted a seminar “LGBTQ+ Mental Health 101” with guest lecturer Dr. Benson-Palmgren, a psychologist and diversity coordinator at the UT counseling center who specializes in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Vols for CONTACT wishes to foster a well-rounded and understanding environment towards diversity in the mental health field. This event specifically was held to provide an overview of sexual orientation and gender identity terminology, and identify risk factors for mental health concerns and suicidality among LGBTQ+ people.

Being able to empathize with others is a key factor in crisis intervention. A recurring theme in this is cultural competency and cultural humility: being able to set-aside cultural biases allows us to see the person we are speaking with as a person, and not a member of a separate group. To be able to understand the struggle that an individual is going through, one must also understand the sociocultural influences impacting that individual’s demographic. The LGBTQ+ community in particular experiences stressors that most cisgender, heterosexual people are not subjected to. Being able to understand certain privileges that you may have and the struggles others may go through can break down barriers that may impede on the listening and empathizing process.

LGBTQ+ Key Terms
LGBT? GLBT? LGBTQ+, LGBTQQIAA2? All of the terms and identities surrounding the community can sometimes feel overwhelming, even to people in those communities; It is important to remember that you will probably mess up when first using these terms, but as long as you show effort in getting it right and respect what the other person is telling you about their own identity, then everything will be okay. There are so many terms and labels associated with the community, but there are a few key definitions that are central to this discussion.

  • Sexual orientation – an umbrella term that describes an individual’s sexual/romantic attraction and tendencies. (Ex. gay, lesbian, bi or bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, aromantic, etc.)
  • Gender identity – One’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither – how individuals perceive themselves and what they call themselves. One’s gender identity can be the same or different from their sex assigned at birth. (Human Rights Campaign)
  • Gender expression – External appearance of one’s gender identity, usually expressed through behavior, clothing, haircut or voice, and which may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.
  • Biological sex – refers to an individual’s external sex characteristics, such as genitalia, breasts, chromosomes, and other biological/physiological factors. Most people experience this as male or female, but there are other variations such as intersex.

It is important to note that these terms are not mutually exclusive, and that just because someone has one characteristic, you cannot assume another factor will follow. For instance, someone may be biologically male, but identify as a lesbian woman. Someone may be biologically female, and identify as a heterosexual woman, but their gender expression could fall in more stereotypically masculine categories (commonly referred to as a “tomboy”). Letting someone tell you how they identify instead of assuming can help keep communication open and judgment-free.
The definitions above will prepare you to understand other terms that are also commonly used. A list of LGBTQ+ key terminology and more resources can be found below.
Genderbread Person: Image below
Trevor Project Glossary: https://www.thetrevorproject.org/trvr_support_center/glossary/.
Human Rights Campaign: https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity-terminology-and-definitions

Suicide in the LGBTQ+ Community
Being LGBT itself is not a risk factor for suicide, but the continuing stigma and discrimination of the community can increase the likelihood of mental health concerns (e.g. depression, anxiety, substance use disorders) and suicidality. Here are some risk factors/warning signs to look out for in LGBTQ+ mental health and suicide: previous attempts, self-harm, isolation, low self-esteem, victimization, lack of resources, an unsafe environment, feelings of hopelessness, lack of social support, family rejection, and religious guilt to name a few. Some protective factors, especially for LGBT youth, are high self-esteem, safe environments, and strong connections and support from family and other loved ones.
Saferclassrooms.org reports:

  • LGB youth are 4x more likely, and questioning youth are 3x more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
    Nearly ½ have transgender youth report seriously considering ending their lives, while ¼ have reported making a serious attempt.
  • 8/10 LGBTQ+ students report being verbally harassed at school.
  • 9/10 LGBTQ+ students say they hear negative remarks made about the community while in school.

Other troubling statistics:

  • Although only 5% of the general youth population is LGBTQ+, 40% of all homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ (fortytonone.org).
  • 30% of LGBTQ+ youth reported being physically abused by family members because of their identity/orientation (National Juvenile Defender Center).

Biases and Microaggressions

Understanding our own sociocultural privileges is a key aspect in supporting other demographics who are not afforded the same opportunities. For instance, someone who is cisgender or heterosexual does not have to fear physical retaliation for their identity/orientation. Cisgender people do not have to endure the questioning of their genitals. Heterosexual people do not have to endure a “coming out” process to their families and face possible rejection. All of these scenarios reflect examples of privileges that non-LGBTQ+ individuals enjoy on a daily basis because they do not carry the stigmatized identity. Being aware of certain privileges can facilitate the understanding and empathy of another person’s situation, and allow for judgment-free communication.

Sexual Orientation Microaggressions

  • Denial of heterosexism, endorsement of heteronormative culture, and use of heterosexist terminology
  • Assuming the LGB experience is universal
  • Discomfort with or disapproval of LGB experience and behaviors
  • Exocitization of sexual orientation
  • Overt, physical aggression or attacks

Gender Identity Microaggressions

  • Use of transphobic terminology
  • Assuming all trans experiences are universal
  • Denial or disapproval of trans experience
  • Assumption of biological gender and gender identity
  • Assumption of sexual deviancy
  • Cis-privilege to ask about and invade the individual’s bodily privacy (i.e. asking if the individual has had “the surgery,” or “work done”)

How To Be a Supportive Ally
An ally can be someone who is not necessarily LGBTQ+ but supports and advocates for equal rights and challenges sexual prejudice, among many other aspects. However, an ally can also be someone who identifies as cisgender and gay but provides support to the transgender community, or vice versa. When being an ally, it is important to understand the risk factors and protective factors of LGBT+ individuals, and be willing to provide a listening ear when it is needed.

Now, what can you do? Challenging yourself as an ally ultimately helps everyone. Take some time to think about what you can learn more about and the actions to take to support the community.

Though members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to suffer from mental illness and attempt suicide, they are not as likely to die from suicide. Those who are apart of the LGBTQ+ community are incredibly resilient. CONTACT Care Line is an inclusive organization, and we are willing to listen to anyone who needs our help. If you would like know more about this post, please email office@contactlistens.org.