An introduction by Razia Kosi
One of the great privileges in working as a therapist and addressing mental health is to share a sacred space of healing with so many wonderful people. The courage, beauty and sincere honesty continues to humble and amaze me. I am proud to share this powerful essay written by my daughter about her journey, and the truth about our inadequacies in supporting LGBTQIA+* youth. I am first and foremost a mother, and I stand with my daughter with unconditional love.
(*lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual)
By Maya Huber
“You’re so bipolar!”
How many times have you heard this, or some version of it, shouted, joking, in the hallways at school? Or as part of the brutal break-up speech in a television show or movie? How do you react, when you do?
Because every time I hear it, I think to myself, “Are they really?” I think, “Have they been diagnosed, like I have, or do they just walk around pretending everything is okay, like I did for so long? How long have they had symptoms? What treatments have they tried?” I wonder how many hidden scars they have, how many times they’ve gone to bed praying they wouldn’t wake.
Mostly, I wonder how they would respond if I asked them these questions.
Almost all of them would laugh, assume I was kidding, because for most people, in their suburban bubble tunnel-vision, they don’t realize that “crazy” is real, that it exists right in their town, their school, their neighborhood — the girl with the big hoodie or the boy on the football team who refuses to change in the locker room or all those kids who smile and laugh and look a little hollow while they do it. Most teenagers, they know crazy exists out there, but they never think it’s somewhere they can see it. Like starving children in Africa, or the homeless man two blocks over — crazy remains out of sight and out of mind.
The rest of us don’t have that luxury. Anyone can be afflicted with a mental illness, obviously, but it seems to strike some people harder than others. Racial and ethnic minorities, or people in low income or urban situations have a higher chance of encountering mental illnesses like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder than equivalent counterparts from white, rich circumstances (Meyer, 2003) This disparity is acknowledged and acted upon by clinicians and school systems, but there are still groups of people who aren’t benefited by widespread recognition of their mental health needs (SAMHSA, 2012).
Another such group is sexual orientation and gender identity minorities, commonly referred to as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender [LGBT] community. For the purposes of full inclusion of persons who self-identify with terminology outside the scope of the acronym, I’m going to use the word “queer” as a blanket term for anyone who identifies as anything besides heterosexual cisgender (although I would advise not using that term yourself, unless you’re sure the person(s) you’re speaking with are comfortable with its usage).
Another important note before we continue: I was born queer, specifically pansexual. (“Pansexual” refers to a person to whom gender is basically irrelevant; attraction is based on personality and not gender identity. Pansexual is differentiated from the more commonly used “bisexual” in that it acknowledges the possibility of genders outside the rigid binary of “male” and “female”.) My queerness is not the result of my mental illness, nor is it derived from a failure of parenting or a traumatic incident or any sort of confusion on my part regarding social norms. I was born queer just as surely as I was born with brown hair and one single freckle on the left side of my nose. I was born queer, and no amount of “reparative therapy” is going to “fix” that (Meyer, 2003). I was born queer, and you couldn’t pay me (or many other queers) to change that about myself, even if you offered me a million dollars or a small European country.
Yet most of us queerfolk are unhappy, despite the pride and confidence we feel. According to a nationwide survey of teenagers 13-17, 37% of queer youth report being happy, as opposed to 67% of non-queer youth (Human Right Campaign, 2012). Let me repeat: nearly twice as many non-queer youth report being happy, when compared to queer youth. It makes me wonder — could it be because queer youth report being verbally harassed at school twice as much as non-queer students (Human Right Campaign, 2012). Or maybe because nearly half of the queer youth interviewed felt like they didn’t fit in in their community (Human Right Campaign, 2012). It might also have something to do with the fact that when the 10,000 teenagers were asked what the biggest problems in their lives were, the top answers of the non-queer youth were all related to schoolwork, or expectations of college, while the top five answers for queer youth were all related to their queerness or self-harm/suicide (Human Right Campaign, 2012) It was not until the number six slot on the list of stressors for queer students that schoolwork was even mentioned (Human Right Campaign, 2012). To rephrase, it was not until after queer youth established the pain of being queer that they even began to be students. We are our sexual orientation or gender identity first, and only begin to have the problems of “normal teenagers” after that.
Additionally, for non-queer students, only 3% of survey responders reported mental illness as a major problem they encounter, while 14% of queer responders indicated it (Human Right Campaign, 2012). Using this group as a representative sample, this means that queer youth are more than four times as likely to be afflicted by a mental illness.
Moreover, nearly 1 in 5 queer youths said that fear of coming out or being open about their sexuality was one of their biggest problems (Human Right Campaign, 2012). It creates an additional layer of social anxiety that most non-queer youth do not have to deal with — the only comparable situation is deciding whether to “out” one’s mental illness or sexual assault. To paraphrase the grievously overused Shakespearean quote: To disclose or not to disclose? That is the question.
For me, at least, the decision is a hard one. I already have social anxiety, and even a simple conversation with an acquaintance is enough to give me a panic attack. So once I am in that conversation, and the person I’m talking to doesn’t know about my lack of heterosexuality, the anxiety of deciding whether or not to tell them becomes almost overwhelming. I become faced with three equally unappealing options, should anything to do with sexuality or relationships come up: I could straight-up lie (no pun intended); I could lie by omission; or I could risk alienating someone I’ve just met or just gotten to know. It’s gotten to the point where every time I meet someone new, I just want to blurt out, “I like women. And men. And people who identify outside the gender binary. I’m not that picky, really, gender doesn’t matter to me,” just so I never have to deal with the wide-eyed shock and faintly accusatory, “But I thought you were straight.” Even if they say they’re okay with it afterwards, there’s no coming back from the look of betrayal on their face, when they realize that I am not who they assumed I was.
It’s a product of our society, that we are considered straight by default, and it is the responsibility of the minority party (in this case, queers) to correct these assumptions. But sometimes we can’t get that word in edgewise, that protest, “Actually, I’m not a girl, I’d prefer if you didn’t use that pronoun,” and we’re stuck being considered something we’re not, in someone’s eyes.
There are also the individuals whose silence is intentional, who choose never to disclose their identities. According to Ilan H. Meyer, who extensively researched the topic of higher rates of mental illness among queer people, “Paradoxically, concealing one’s stigma is often used as a coping strategy, aimed at avoiding negative consequences of stigma, but it is a coping strategy that can backfire and become stressful. […] [T]he cost of hiding one’s stigma […is] a private hell.” (Meyer, 2003)
For perhaps this very reason, queer youth (even those with no documented mental illness) have the highest rates of attempted or completed suicides. Meyer notes that, “[Queer] youth […] were three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to report a suicide attempt in the year prior to the survey […and] five to six times more likely than heterosexual youth to report suicide ideation and attempts over their lifetime.” (Meyer, 2003) Furthermore, only 10% of teens report being queer, but they account for 30% of teen suicides. (Planned Parenthood, 2010)
I’ve been lucky. Of all the times I’ve tried or wanted to kill myself, it has not been related to my queerness. But that is certainly not the case for everyone. Recall Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington bridge after his roommate posted a video of him having sex with another man on the Internet. (LGBTQ Nation, 2010) Or Seth Walsh, who was bullied for years until he took his own life at the age of 13. (LGBTQ Nation, 2010) And for every one of these stories that make headlines, there are one, two, a dozen more that don’t. (Planned Parenthood, 2010) There are teenagers or children who kill themselves without disclosing the bullying they’ve faced, or the turmoil they’ve felt, and no one in their lives will ever understand why they made the choice that they did; the people in their lives will never know the stigma they faced, the pain that was so severe that they felt death was a better option than life.
The reason for this reaction to stigma has a name. It’s called “minority stress”, and it is defined as when “individuals from stigmatized social categories [experience…] the adverse effect of social conditions, such as prejudice and stigma.” (Meyer, 2003) The definition goes on to qualify that minority stress is:
(a) unique—[…] additive to general stressors that are experienced by all people, and therefore […requiring] adaptation effort above that required of similar others who are not stigmatized; (b) chronic—[…] related to relatively stable underlying social and cultural structures; and (c) socially based—[…] stem[ming] from social processes, institutions, and structures […] rather than individual events or conditions. (Meyer, 2003)
Specifically for queer youth, this additional stress can manifest as internalized homophobia, an internal reflection of negative social values, even in the absence of external, overt discrimination or conflict. (Meyer, 2003) Meyer also noted that “internalized homophobia is a significant correlate of mental health including depression and anxiety symptoms […] and suicide ideation.” (Meyer, 2003) When you take all these factors into consideration, it’s no wonder that so many queer youths are pushed to and past their breaking points.
So, now, you begin to wonder — how can we fix this? One source encourages cultural competency, and raised awareness among not only the general population, but also specifically among mental health professionals, so that they understand how to treat queer individuals in a way that is not alienating or unsuccessful. (Planned Parenthood, 2010) Another source came up with a few dozen solutions, such as “expand[ing…] vital mental health services to LGBT youth living in rural and under-served areas” via telecommunications. (Maza, Carlos, and Krehely, 2010) All of the reasons detailed in these documents sound fantastic. They are concrete and achievable and probably very necessary. They refer to exact sections of laws and bills, and how they should be amended to reflect equality and justice for queer youth. All of their solutions deal with defined problems, and ways to fix what already is, which, don’t get me wrong, is completely necessary and vital.
But what do we really need to do to lessen the impact of mental illness and suicide on queer youth? A complete upheaval of society that lessens the stigma of being queer until it is no longer a notable aspect of a person’s character. In order to make (non mentally ill) queer kids happy, what we need is a society that treats all of us equally, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, mental illness, etc.
That society does not exist. I hear people make fun of the caricature of “crazy” they see on television; I hear people throw “gay” around like a slur. Every time I look at a college and consider applying, I research their level of acceptance of queer individuals, to ensure that I will find a safe community on their campus. I fear that if I don’t do this research, I could attend a school where I would be either overtly or subtly persecuted for an unchangeable part of who I am. There is no way to research how accepting a community is of mentally ill individuals. I simply have to assume that I can find people like me, or risk remaining “in the closet” for a different, integral piece of who I am.
A society where I do not have to worry about any of this does not exist, now, but I know that it can, eventually. I have hope that it will happen, if not in my lifetime, then for my children or their children after them. The earlier survey also revealed that 77% of queer teenagers believe that things will get better for them, and I’m inclined to agree. (Human Right Campaign, 2012) One day, queer kids will be asked in a survey if they’re happy, and more than 37% of them will answer, “Yes.”
Human Right Campaign. Growing Up LGBT in America: HRC Youth Survey Report Key Findings. 2012. PDF file. <http://www.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/Growing-Up-LGBT-in-America_Report.pdf>
LGBTQ Nation. “Two More Gay Teen Suicide Victims — Raymond Chase, Cody Barker Mark 6 Deaths in September.” LGBTQ Nation. LGBTQ Nation, 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.lgbtqnation.com/2010/10/two-more-gay-teen-suicide-victims-raymond-chase-cody-barker-mark-6-deaths-in-september/>
Maza, Carlos, and Jeff Krehely. “How to Improve Mental Health Care for LGBT Youth: Recommendations for the Department of Health and Human Services.” americanprogress. Center for American Progress, 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/report/2010/12/09/8787/how-to-improve-mental-health-care-for-lgbt-youth/>
Meyer, Ilan H. “Prejudice, Social Stress, and Mental Health in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Populations: Conceptual Issues and Research Evidence.” Psychological Bulletin 129.5 (Sep. 2003): 674-697. Web. 10 Oct. 2014. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2072932/>
Planned Parenthood Mid-Hudson Valley, Inc., Mental Health Association in Ulster County, Inc., University of Maryland Center for Mental Health Services Research, and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA). Enhancing Cultural Competence Second Edition: Welcoming Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer People in Mental Health Services. 23 July 2010. PDF file. <http://www.rainbowheights.org/downloads/2ndEd%20LGBT%20KIT%2010-23-07.pdf>
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Top Health Issues for LGBT Populations Information & Resource Kit. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 12-4684. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2012. PDF file. <http://store.samhsa.gov/shin/content/SMA12-4684/SMA12-4684.pdf>