Today is World Mental Health Day, a day to promote good mental health and talk openly about conditions which are often stigmatized and for too long have not been talked about at all.
Stonewall’s health research in the UK consistently shows that there are many lesbian, gay and bisexual people who experience poor mental health – whether that be the 7% of lesbians and bisexual women attempting to take their own life in the last year, the 15% of black and minority ethnic gay and bisexual men who have problems with their weight or eating, or the 46% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people who have symptoms consistent with depression.
These are shocking statistics, and they raise grave concerns about how we view mental health in Britain. But today, I want to talk about an issue that receives scant attention – self-harm.
Self-harm is very rarely talked about, but it can have severe consequences if left untreated. And alarmingly, Stonewall research shows it’s becoming increasingly common among young people – especially gay young people.
I’ve seen the damage self-harming can cause first hand. It was upsetting, not least because the injuries to my friend were permanent and obviously painful, but also because our teachers saw bandages and plasters for months but said and did nothing. I know it’s hard to understand why people self-harm, and I understand why it can be difficult to stop.
Whether self-harming involves self-injury, self-poisoning or other means, the trigger is not universal. Many people who self-harm say it’s a way to release tension, or to punish themselves. For some, it’s part of a desire to take control of the situation they are in. What’s clear from our research is that a frightening amount of self-harming behavior is directly linked to homophobic bullying.
We know that more than half of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have deliberately harmed themselves. And two in five young lesbian, gay and bisexual people who have experienced homophobic bullying say they have deliberately harmed themselves because of this bullying. Young people told us how they cut themselves, how they burnt themselves, and how they swallowed objects as a way to deal with being unaccepted for who they are.
Self-harming can be a deeply private and personal activity, and as such difficult to talk to anyone about. It can be hard to try and seek help, and that’s only made harder by homophobic bullying – and so the pattern of harming continues.
A third of young lesbian, gay and bisexual people who experience homophobic bullying at school tell us they can’t talk about this bullying. Three in five say teachers haven’t intervened when they’ve witnessed this bullying. It really does appear that there’s no one to talk to, no one to discuss the issues with and no one to seek help from.
Some gay young people might be fortunate enough to be referred to community health services for support and treatment, but for many this isn’t the case.
We can have all the guidelines, standards and action plans in the world to deal with self-harm, but by not addressing one of the major determinants for young gay people to self-harm we miss a chance to make a real difference.
It’s the school that takes a zero tolerance approach to the use of the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ that helps make things better. Or the school nurse who has a rainbow flag on his desk. Or the GP who doesn’t automatically lecture the teenage girl in front of her about pregnancy without allowing the girl to say, ‘I’m gay’. These, and other small interventions, can help improve the way young gay people experience growing up and potentially reduce incidents of self-harm.
Ultimately, however, it’s only when schools and community health services involve all young people that they can begin to understand and address the issues. Many schools and hospitals already work with Stonewall to do this.
Our new Youth Volunteering Programme offers an opportunity for 75 young people to campaign against homophobic bullying in their area, and to make their schools a friendly environment where young lesbian, gay and bisexual people can thrive and can reach their potential.
So although today is an important chance to focus on mental health, it shouldn’t be our only chance. Being able to talk about how we’re feeling, and making sure our schools enable all young people to talk about how they are feeling – and be accepted for who they are – needs to happen every day.
James Taylor is senior health officer for Stonewall, Britain’s leading lesbian, gay and bisexual campaign organization. Stonewall’s Youth Programme is accepting applications until 5pm UK time on 16 October, find out more here.