Mental health in LGBT+ community

All humans experience pain and loss at some point in their lives. How they get through that pain is having a support system of friends and family who offer a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. The situation is different if you are a gay man. When you lose a partner who do you talk to? While you may have dependable gay friends, one thing you don’t have that a heterosexual man has is the freedom to express this pain to just anyone. He can share things with his family and even take it that pain out on social media. You can’t.

Two things happened to me in the space of two months. I lost my job and my partner. These are two big things to most people. A job guarantees you income and financial comfort. A partner anchors you and has your back. In short, you are relatively fine when you have these things. Now imagine losing these two in such a short space of time. It feels as if the ground has been yanked from underneath you and you start to fall into the unknown. The pain I found myself in lingered for so long. And continues to do so because I feel as if I have not addressed it sufficiently. I can’t talk about it the way heterosexuals do.

The question: Do LGBT+ people have dependable support systems to address their pain? It is these unaddressed psycho social ills that weigh down many LGBT+ people into offshoot problems of substance abuse, anger, hate towards self and the rest of the community. This, and a sense of hopelessness that sometimes leads to suicide. In a 2016-2017 survey from Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), 28% of LGBT+ youth, including 40% of transgender youth in the United Kingdom, said they felt depressed most or all the time during the previous 30 days. This, compared to only 12% of non-LGBT+ youth. Further, LGBT+ youth is more than twice as likely to feel suicidal, and over four times as likely to attempt suicide, compared to heterosexual youth. The situation in Africa and in homophobic Zambia cannot be further from these indicators as the LGBT+ community faces similar struggles.

I have been down that road. When I try to talk about my issues I feel as if I am burdening my friends. I envy a heterosexual man who posts images of his lost love on social media and has friends support him. I am jealous of heterosexuals composing statuses talking about the love of their lives while I sit here looking at pictures of my late partner – knowing I will never share them with the world.

Teacher, educator, healer, author, and host of the talk show Iyanla, Fix My Life on the OWN Network said: “The key to achieving mental health is to stop hiding, and seek answers and treatment.” In my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are few spaces for LGBT+ people who are suffering to go for help or treatment for their mental issues in Zambia. Health services do not recognise the needs of this community and the legal framework in the country makes more invisible the already stigmatised community. So it’s not surprising that many LGBT+ people feel othered, silenced and with no outlet for their emotional issues. Issues which are most likely to be frowned upon by the general society. 

Zambia’s Mental Health Act 305 of 1951 is outdated and does not adequately address the mental health of marginalised populations. The country has started decentralising psychiatry services in a bid to offer mental health services to a segment of society which experiences stigma and discrimination. Still, there is no deliberate policy to address the LGBT+ population. This is due to there being a criminalised group facing society’s stigma.

President of the Zambia Mental Health Advocacy and Support Initiative (MHASI), Dominic Chatewa, speaking in Lusaka via telephone interview with the Times of Zambia in October 2017 said: “As MHASI, we are calling on the Legislature to expedite the enactment of the 2021 Mental Health Bill which would replace the current archaic 1951 bill. The bill will set in motion a number of policy issues that will be of benefit to society.” Unfortunately, this policy change will not be inclusive of the LGBT+ community, unless there is active lobbying around it.

This stigma is twofold, not only is this marginalised group suffering from mental health issues, but their identity is also stigmatised. For LGBT+ people it becomes even more challenging to seek services or find spaces to talk about these issues. It is for this reason that certain organisations have started addressing this gap by engaging private psychologists and open-minded health service institutions. This will enable them to start offering these services in more spaces.

In addition, the organisations conduct periodic support group meetings and group counselling sessions for the LGBT+ community. This has enabled the affected to find a voice and space to air out their issues and frustrations and even connect with others who may be experiencing similar issues. Leaders of LGBT+ groups are also in need of this service considering the taxing nature of their jobs, the risks this work comes with, and the high expectations from the communities they serve.

As someone that has been working in the LGBT+ movement and all that I have been through, having a supportive circle of friends and colleagues has helped me a lot. I’ve been able to address my mental health issues, stay healthy, and focused. Unfortunately, not many are in this position. This is the gap that needs urgent addressing not only by LGBT+ organisations and their partners but by the government as well, as part of its mandatory health service provision to which all Zambians are entitled.

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