Intro to Mental Health in 2SLGBTQ+ Communities

According to Statistics Canada, approximately one million people in Canada identified as sexual minorities in 2018, which accounted for 4% of the Canadian population aged 15 or older. Youth aged 15 to 24 made up 30%, or just under a third of the 2SLGTBQ+ population compared with 14% of the non-2SLGBTQ+ population.

Experiences of Violence

Alarmingly, the Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (SSPPS) indicated that Canadians who identified as a sexual minority were more likely to report having experienced violence in their lifetime as well as inappropriate behaviours in public and online, compared with non-sexual minority Canadians. Specifically, from the age of 15 and in the past 12 months, sexual minority Canadians were more likely to have experienced physical or sexual assault compared with heterosexual Canadians, excluding violence committed by an intimate partner.

Despite efforts to improve the human rights of transgender people through federal legislation, and the reporting by Statistics Canada of the experiences of transgender Canadians and gender-based violence, transphobic acts continue.

Impact of Stigma and Violence on Mental Health

In Meyer’s Minority Stress Theory (Meyer, 2003), he highlights a framework for understanding sexual minority mental health. It argues that sexual minorities are more likely to experience chronic social stressors due to their stigmatized identities. The distinct experiences that 2SLGBTQ+ people face, including victimization, prejudice, and discrimination, are disproportionately compromising their mental health and well-being (Gnan et al., 2019). Furthermore, research also shows that 2SLGBTQ+ communities are more likely to experience thoughts of suicide than their heterosexual counterparts due to abuse, hopelessness, low self-esteem, low social support, and negative social relationships (Gnan et al., 2019).

Prevalence of Mental Health Crisis

Shockingly and unfortunately, in 2019, police reported 41% more hate crimes related to sexual orientation compared to the year prior (StatsCan, 2021). 32% of sexual-minority Canadians stated that their mental health is poor or fair in 2019 data (up from 11% in 2018) and 41% were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder (up from 16% in 2018) (StatsCan, 2021). Focusing on youth, evidence shows that depression and anxiety disorders are up to three times more common in young LGB people than in their heterosexual youth counterparts (Lucassen et al. 2017; Plöderl and Tremblay 2015). Young LGBTQ people are at even greater risk for poor mental health than older LGBTQ adults. Specifically focusing on the post-secondary, a recent UK-based study found that 33% of first-year college students from 8 different countries who identified as members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities had experienced suicidal ideation in their lifetime, compared to 16.4% of total post-secondary students surveyed in Canada (American College Health Association, 2019).

Similarly, Canadian studies have found that LGB youth were approximately five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to report suicidal ideation, and over two times more likely to have attempted to end their own lives within the last year (Egale & L’École de Santé Publique de L’Université de Montréal, 2021).

Resilience and Community Response

2SLGBTQ+ communities have been and continue to be resilient. Though 2SLGBTQ+ communities have endured hatred, violence, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, these same communities, both collectively and individually, have fought for and earned rights, freedoms, and protections under Canadian law. Resilience has been and continues to be an important part of 2SLGBTQ+ mental health and supporting the development of that resilience is a key component to a thriving sense of well-being.

When members of 2SLGBTQ+ communities find safe spaces to talk about their experiences, challenges, and their mental health and well-being, they can experience feelings of security, growth, and an opportunity to heal. For example, a research study by Revilla (2010) highlighted the experiences of queer women of color in a university safe space and their support by a collective of women called “Raza Womyn”, allowing them to discuss issues they faced and have conversations that they could not openly have with their families or within their cultural contexts (Revilla, 2010). When these women felt that they had a safe space within their university, they began the process of growth and consciousness-raising which became the ultimate source of strength for this group.

But more than education and raising awareness, the concept of a ‘safer space’, as seen in the example of Raza Women, included feelings of love, hope, fun, security, and intimacy. The creation of spaces for coping and connection with community members can counter some of the stresses that come from navigating hostile and/or anti-queer environments (Gilmour, 2019).

Hetero-normativity and Cis-normativity on Campus

There has been a growing number of research studies that illustrate the importance of post-secondary institutions providing a welcoming climate of inclusivity to all students to increase their sense of belonging in school. Research shows that when schools invest in making their campus climate positive, welcoming, and safe for LGBTQ students, those students are more likely to be involved in campus co-curricular activities and contribute to positive self-growth and development (Pryor, 2018).

Preston and Hoffman developed the concept of the Traditionally Hetero-gendered Institution (THI) which posits that school campuses and climates have been shaped by and for straight individuals, who to some extent are supportive of LGBTQ programs but have a very limited view of LGBTQ students’ success and stories (Pryor, 2018). Because LGBTQ students are ‘othered’ and are often viewed as students who ‘need to be saved’, the THI concept highlights that even today, institutions are operated from a cis-gendered point of view despite the various policies and diversity programs currently in place. The THI concept is an important framework for considering and understanding how institutions’ policies, practices, and processes exclude minoritized students and how such traditions can be dismantled to center the experiences of 2SLGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff members.

Through progressive policies and the adoption of equity, diversity, and inclusion principles, there has been substantial progress and positive change for 2SLGBTQ+ learners and educators. However, though schools have diversity offices and there are human rights laws in place, they do little to reduce microaggressions, or address the fact that learners and educators can often feel isolation and a sense of unease in a hetero-/cis-gender normative climate (Beagan et al., 2020). Research shows that homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia remain rampant in Canadian schools, and typical campus environments are not overly welcoming or affirming for 2SLGBTQ+ students (Pryor, 2018). One outcome of this climate is the reluctance of many students and faculty to ‘come out’ and remain uncloseted to have a more positive experience on their campuses (Dentato et al., 2014). Furthermore, most post-secondary institutions in Canada have a ‘pervasive culture of closeted-ness’ where you are presumed straight/cis-gender unless proven otherwise (Beagan et al., 2020).

Post-secondary cultures and perceptions of safety

Much like the SSPPS findings on 2SLGBTQ+ experiences of violence, research suggests that microaggressions towards 2SLGBTQ+ communities are pervasive in Canadian post-secondary institutions despite formal protections in human rights in Canada. These microaggressions lead to experienced isolation, tokenism, and marginalization (Beagan et al., 2020). The heteronormative culture of Canadian post-secondary institutions often goes unacknowledged and unexamined, and that can elicit feelings of discomfort and distrust (Dentato et al., 2014). Research on Canadian post-secondary schools showed that 34% of LGBT+ students felt like they didn’t belong, compared to 28% of heterosexual students (Woodford et al., 2019). The study also showed that along with lower feelings of belonging, 20% of LGBT+ students reported feeling unsafe at night compared to 16% of cisgender heterosexual students.

To learn more about the Ontario-wide study on LGBTQ students on campus, check out the LGBTQ Thriving on campus study here

Overall, the challenge of understanding the needs of 2SLGBTQ+ students are real – there is a lack of accurate data on student sexual orientation and gender identity for most of our institutions at a national level. In relation to students, one research study highlighted the issues that 2SLGBTQ+ faculty face in their institutions – from feelings of isolation to the risk of losing credibility and response, poor teaching evaluations, and false accusations of relationships with students. Furthermore, isolating from the campus community was their coping strategy, and faculty preferred to connect with outside queer communities for emotional support rather than seeking support at work (Beagan et al., 2020).

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