LGBT+ and mental health

To mark LGBT+ History Month, Keith Winestein shares how discrimination against the LGBT+ community impacted his mental wellbeing and explores how we can support our colleagues through inclusion and accessible mental health services.

It’s not a sin having lived experience of being a man with mental health problems.

Picture this: a young man arrives in London in September 1981. Secretly gay and in the closet. Aged 19. This is his first time away from home. Fulfilling a dream to study drama…

It may sound familiar if you have followed Richie’s story in It’s a Sin on Channel 4, but this is my story too. Many of Richie’s experiences are eerily familiar to me as they are for many gay men of my vintage.

I want to share some of my lived experiences with you. Being gay did not cause my mental health problems but some of the things that I have lived through have negatively impacted my mental health.

Like me, other people who are LGTBQ+ may also experience bullying, rejection, discrimination, prejudice and stigma, which for me, has led to mostly hidden low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and isolation. Then there was the difficulty of coming out, threats of conversion therapies and being ‘sent to someone for a cure’.

In the LGBTQ+ community, there are higher rates of suicidal distress, anxiety and depression. That’s about one in three of us that are dealing with mental health problems, compared to one in four in the general population.

The impact of discrimination on mental wellbeing

Ageing, as I reflect on my life, brings more mental health issues, affecting my wellbeing.

Four decades ago, at a time when there was little legal protection for gay men, I could be sacked from a job, refused a mortgage, denied rented accommodation or evicted, forbidden visiting rights and barred from a partner’s funeral.

Clause 28 and the terror of the AIDS pandemic caused great detriment to my mental wellbeing.

It was a stressful time when members of the LGBTQ+ community, and gay men specifically, were villainised and vilified.

Outrageous tabloid headlines like Manchester’s Chief Constable James Anderton’s “everywhere I go I see evidence of people [gay men with AIDS] swirling around in the cesspool of their own making".

I am reminded how cruelly homophobic the tabloids were, at a time my friends were dying of AIDS. The paradox is that these and other hateful comments actually fuelled my rage, raw grief, determination and passion to change things.

Jump forward forty years to Mind, where I helped to establish the first LGBTQ+ staff group.

The safe space encouraged me to open up to my younger colleagues in their twenties about the discrimination I had experienced decades earlier as a young gay man, the fear of HIV, and the grief I still feel after losing so many friends to AIDS.

I found I needed to talk about the irrational guilt that, somehow, I had survived the AIDS pandemic. The challenges of building a new life and a new network of friends.

These friendly social events provided an opportunity for me to reflect and discuss both my personal struggles and the ongoing community issues with my younger colleagues.

The current COVID pandemic has worsened the mental health of potentially 20+ million people in the UK. Employers should review their mental health policies and check that they meet the needs of all employees who may now have additional mental health challenges.

We should all look out for one another's mental health, especially when we know that some of us may suffer higher levels of discrimination and isolation.

It is everyone's right to have good mental health with mental health services accessible and inclusive to all.

Supporting mental health in your firm

The power of a few small changes can really help, such as ensuring access to inclusive counsellors, mental health first-aiders, and an LGBTQ+ inclusive employers assistance programme.

Engaging with LGBTQ+ staff networks can also help HR and senior staff understand the issues that employees are facing and how to support them.

Taking steps to make sure every employee feels welcome and valued isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.

When I feel empowered to bring my whole self to work, I provide valuable lived experience, insight, energy and new ideas to objectives, generating innovation which will help business to thrive.

Something I put into regular practice is to start each one-to-one session with a check-in to ask how my colleague is feeling. I’m prepared to really listen to the answer. I share with them how I am feeling and my coping strategies.

Showing them my vulnerability and authenticity actually demonstrates my true strengths. Being authentic and honest can go a long way towards supporting all employees facing difficulties.

In order to bring my whole self to work, I want my colleagues to:

  • try not to make assumptions about me based on what’s already known about LGBTQ+ issues or mental health problems
  • ask me what is going on in my life
  • give me space to talk – and really listen without judging
  • show me you care (you may do, but I might not know that)

As an ageing gay man, my experiences both at work and in my personal life have helped me to openly embrace my identity which, in turn, has had a hugely positive impact on my wellbeing.

My confidence has increased, my relationships with my family, friends and colleagues has deepened. I have acquired a sense of community and belonging at work and with people I chose to be with.

I am free to express and accept myself. Increased resilience has helped me deal with life on life’s terms and the patience to deal with whatever is around the corner.

It will enable me to watch It’s a Sin again with acceptance, gratitude and pride.

 

For more information on this topic, visit MindOut and the LGBT Foundation.

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