November 13, 2017

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Ensuring Inclusive Early Intervention for LGBTQ+ youth

By Fae Johnstone

Fae Johnstone (referred to as she or they) is a queer nonbinary young person with a passion for youth engagement, mental health, and anti-oppression.

Recently, they delivered a keynote address on Queer and Trans Inclusion in Youth Mental Health at the International Association for Youth Mental Health Conference: Future-Proofing Youth Mental Health. Following the conference, IEPA asked Fae to share some “take home messages” for early intervention.

In late September, I had the honour and privilege of presenting at the 4th International Conference on Youth Mental Health (IAYMH2017), hosted by the International Association for Youth Mental Health (IAYMH). The conference brought together policy makers, clinicians, advocates and young people from across the world to share their work and advocate for better youth mental health services on an international scale.

With a particularly strong set of workshops, keynotes and concurrent sessions on gender and sexuality, I was thrilled to see IAYMH take a deep look into how we can make a mental health system that is inclusive to all.

As a young queer and trans person, and a youth mental health advocate, I had the distinct privilege of delivering a plenary address on how we can improve mental healthcare for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer (LGBTQ+) youth. The key message I put forward, which was echoed in conference workshops that focused on LGBTQ+ youth, was that the poor state of mental health outcomes in our community is connected intimately to the systemic homophobia, biphobia and transphobia found in our countries.

Contrary to historic understandings within mental health institutions, where LGBTQ+ identities have been pathologized, we emphasized that the heightened rates of poor mental health, suicidality, and homelessness that exist in our communities are rooted in the disenfranchisement and violence experienced by LGBTQ+ young people.

My plenary address – and that of many other LGBTQ+ focused presentations – gave service providers and policy makers tangible steps they can take to ensure their organizations and services are inclusive of LGBTQ+ young people. My address focused on three key points:

  • Engage LGBTQ+ young people, organizations and communities directly. For too long, LGBTQ+ communities have been ostracized from the mental health community. Given the history of violence mental health institutions have enacted on LGBTQ+ people, it is no surprise many members of our communities are hesitant to access mental health services – even with services that can and do save lives. Youth mental health organizations need to engage with LGBTQ+ communities to build new relationships, foster trust, and collaborate to better meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth.
  • Organizations need to embed LGBTQ+ inclusion throughout their organizations – from the front lines all the way up to agency leadership. Organizations need to ensure their staff is familiar with how to interact with LGBTQ+ young people in an affirming and validating way, and take steps to ensure that every aspect of their organization is inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities – from washroom to posters to admission forms.
  • We need a systemic response to a systemic crisis. It is not sufficient to address this problem with “LGBTQ+ inclusion” workshops that do not lead to real changes to the environment; change needs to happen at the foundation. Putting the burden on individual service providers and local agencies won’t solve the problem, but governments and policy makers working hand in hand with the LGBTQ+ community can.

While many countries have come a long way in supporting the rights of LGBTQ+ communities, the unfortunate reality is many still fail to protect even the most basic rights. Even in my home country of Canada, it was only after decades of advocacy that, in June 2016, the federal government passed human rights protections for trans and gender diverse Canadians. Human rights protections and the right to marry are not the sole or all-encompassing solutions to end discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ young people, and protect their health and safety. However, when countries fail to provide such basic affirmations of a person’s right to exist and be who they are, the passage of legal rights have a significant impact on the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people. A conspicuous example of this can be found in the reduction of suicide rates for LGBTQ+ American youth after the legalisation of marriage in many states.

If we are to make the world safer for LGBTQ+ young people, we need to advocate for a society that supports and affirms their identities. Fighting the discrimination, the homophobia, biphobia and transphobia still rampant in our society is the best form of early intervention possible. As such, we need to embed LGBTQ+ inclusion in mental health and social service systems. Given the horrific and historical trends of institutionalisation in LGBTQ+ communities, we need to set a high bar of inclusion and validation. This is the surest lead to a society where LGBTQ+ young people grow up happy and healthy, with families that love them and mental health services that support them when they’re in need.

Reflecting on the experience of attending and delivering a plenary address at IAYMH2017, one central message comes to mind: LGBTQ+ young people are resilient and brilliant. They have survived in the face of a society that often violently rejects their identities and are leading the fight for acceptance in their societies. It’s time for mental health advocates, policy makers and politicians to take action and make their countries and services more inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities.

For more, follow IEPA Network on Twitter and LinkedIn.

You can also follow Fae Johnstone on Twitter @FaeJohnstone.

Photo credit – Kelsey Angelina – Instagram @kelseyangelinaa.