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Gay youth: A mental health crisis borne out of persecution?

Tue 16 Aug 2005 In: Living Well View at Wayback View at NDHA

Gays and lesbians in NZ are at greater risk of developing mental health problems, says a new Otago University paper, but how can we dig deeper into the root causes? Less than twenty-four hours had passed since the findings of an Otago University paper were announced showing gay and lesbian youth are at much higher risk of developing mental health disorders than their heterosexual counterparts. The paper linked homosexual orientation with increasing rates of depression, anxiety, illicit drug dependence, suicidal thoughts and attempts. Two news items on immediately detailed the paper itself, and we printed reactions from various community and welfare groups. And, before you could shake a crucifix, the religious vultures descended. Witness this, from's mailbox: “If Pamela Dwyer [UniQ Otago], Professor David Fergusson [the study's author], or Neville Creighton [of Auckland's Gay and Lesbian Welfare] want to know why thier is a higher rate of mental illness in the gay community it,s very simple have they heard of karma. Well thats what you get if you break any of gods laws and its no good pretending that they are any different to anyone else breaking gods laws and unfortunately untill they stop neither will the bad head trip. Its only the weak that play the game and that goes for the ones that play at it being cool too. Didnt aids tell you anything. Anyway whatever ,keep tricking yourselves and ya mates if you want to all i can say is stop pretending and your mind will clear up trust me on that, and have a good day,be strong,johnnyb” Professor David Fergusson, of the Christchurch School of Medicine and Health Sciences from where the paper emerged, sounded slightly bewildered when I read him this email down the phone and asked him what he'd say to people who drew such conclusions from his research. “Knowledge can always be used for the good or bad. It's always subject to infinite misuse, and infinite construction and reconstruction. There is nothing in our research that speaks to or against the role of God in all this. We just haven't investigated God's role in this matter,” he answered politely, before expressing frustration that this is the level of debate that is often reached in the media when discussing scientific research. We give too much coverage to fringe nutters (my term, not his) who are given added credibility by having their voices amplified by journalists. I'd like nothing better to ignore the religious right in the hope that they're going to go away, but unfortunately this shows no sign of happening. Benjamin Franklin once said that nothing in life is certain, apart from death and taxes. I'd go further and add “religious fundamentalists who love scientific research with negative outcomes for gays and lesbians”. The forthcoming religious right response to the Fergusson findings, of which we've been given a barely literate preview above, will be as predictable as the findings themselves. So what does Professor Fergusson say to those who would use his research to argue that “curing” homosexuals is the answer to preventing mental illness? “That's a feasible solution, if it were possible to do that. But all of the evidence suggests that it is not, irrespective of whether it's desirable,” he says. “If you try and impose these solutions on people, you increase human unhappiness.” Using the paper's findings to stigmatise the GLB population would be unfair, he says, and not the intention of the study. “The solution to this is to say, this is a population who are at risk. The most pressing issue is ensuring that health services are responsive to the risk, irrespective of the causation. You don't go to emergency departments and say that people who drink and drive aren't to be treated.” So does he believe homosexuality is comparable to drink-driving? “No I wouldn't, because I suspect there's less choice in this situation. It's more comparable to people who are red-headed going out in the sun.” The more profound issue thrown up by the paper's findings, says Fergusson, is a need to look at what is causing gays and lesbians to develop mental health problems in greater numbers, and here is where the waters run deep. While Fergusson acknowledges the major part that social pressure and homophobia probably has to play in the reasons for the GLB mental health crisis – the fact that the gay men in the study were far worse off than lesbians points toward this – he is skeptical that these are the only reasons why. “It may very well be because gay cultures have been outsider cultures that the regulation of behaviours within those cultures has not been the same as within straight culture,” he says. “It may be this is a feature of gay communities that can be regulated independently of the social discrimination. There may be choices and decisions within gay and lesbian communities that may encourage this.” Looking into at-risk behaviours within minorities is a tricky area. While the prejudiced will leap upon negative statistics with delight to prove “it's all their fault”, advocacy movements can be just as bad at the opposite end of the spectrum. “I understand that in the gay community, and indeed the advocacy community round the world, there are simple slogans used like homophobia and social discrimination, and this is because you're dealing with an advocacy-driven movement, in the same way that you'll encounter claims by Maori and Pacific Islanders that it's institutional racism. And the same arguments come back – is it society at large that's causing it, or the behaviours of the particular group that are causing it?” Digging deeper into the actual reasons why gays and lesbians are at increased risk of developing mental health disorders is something that is probably beyond the reach of Fergusson's research, a longitudinal study that has followed 1265 Christchurch-born men and women since birth up until their present age of 25 (the same group will be studied again in five years time). The prevalence of gays and lesbians in the sample was a question addressed this time around, with interesting results. 3% of the sample were exclusively gay or lesbian, while up to 13% had experienced some degree of same-sex attraction. Fergusson says “virtually nothing” is a predictor of GLB orientation itself, with the GLB sample all coming from different socio-economic and family backgrounds. “One of the things that limits our research, and limits it quite strongly, is that there only a relatively small number of people of exclusively homosexual orientation,” Fergusson says. “3% of 1000 is 30, and this makes it very hard to focus in-depth on that group because there aren't enough of them to examine the variability.” Although the paper concludes that gays and lesbians are at increased risk of developing mental health problems, it is not the conclusion that the majority of GLB folk are mentally afflicted. “What is needed is a relatively large sample of GLB people in order to find what distinguishes between the majority who won't have mental health problems, and those who do,” says Fergusson. “You've got two blocks of factors you could look at; first is social discrimination factors. Those who develop disorders tend to have a much greater burden, or sense of social discrimination, than those who don't. The second are the lifestyle factors; those who have an increased rate of disorder have different lifestyles from those who don't have disorders. They have greater risk-taking behaviours in general.” But, in the final analysis, does it all come back to social discrimination factors in one way or another? A gay man who experiences drug, alcohol, or sex addiction – all examples of ‘lifestyle' factors which could contribute to mental illness – is not doing so because he is gay. If he was, what's his heterosexual counterpart's excuse for experiencing the same addictions? He may be advocacy-driven, but Neville Creighton of Auckland's Gay and Lesbian Welfare breaks down the social discrimination and homophobia factors into more than just slogans. "Here we have a group of people that are constantly bombarded with messages of how bad they are. They are faggots, pansies, sissies, perverts, disgusting. They see and hear destructive criticism from all sides – parents, peers, experts, politicians – probably 65% of the people they know or hear about," he says. "They hear of gaol, mental hospital incarceration, torture, religious damnation, bullying and bludgeoning. They see murderers of gay men getting off, or with lighter sentences because of the 'homosexual panic' plea. They see politicians and religious bigots using gay people as political and convenient punch bags... "They see gay people being blamed for tsunamis. They constantly hear that gay people are paedophiles and child molesters. They are told that we should all be shot, that we are worse than dogs, we are more likely to be murderers and drug addicts and that other men should keep their backs to the wall when are around... and then we wonder why more of our people commit suicide or have mental problems?" Our religious correspondent 'JohnnyB' would tell us it's just karma. But those who invoke karma should be careful, lest it run over their dogma. Chris Banks - 16th August 2005    

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Tuesday, 16th August 2005 - 12:00pm

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