Getting It Straight on Gay Mental Health

Homosexuals are twice as likely as heterosexuals to seek help from mental health professionals, according to a study by UCLA researchers published last week in the journal BMC Psychiatry.

This is one of those studies meant to highlight a disparity so as to improve access to and quality of treatment but which ultimately might be misconstrued to support the notion that homosexuals are somehow more feeble-minded.

On one hand, the findings might not be surprising to some in a naive way: Gays portrayed in the popular media all seem zany. Surely all that disco and Ecstasy will make anyone go crazy.

Many others, however, remain convinced that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, that homosexuality is itself a mental disorder, that homosexuals are narcissistic creatures bent on pleasing no one but themselves, and that their gender "confusion" sickens the mind by virtue of being an affront to natural law. The UCLA study, which did not delve into the reasons why gays seek treatment but just stuck to the numbers, serves as fuel for their fire.

That gays seek mental health services more often than heterosexuals is a reflection of many factors: partly they are open to asking for help; partly they are dealing with the various idiosyncrasies of the gay community; and mostly they are coping with the psychological pain of lifelong discrimination, planted long before they questioned their sexuality.

While there is a pretense of gay acceptance in this country, in reality homosexuals remain the one minority we can still legally discriminate against.

We all need help

The UCLA study found that 48.5 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals reported receiving mental health treatment in the past year, compared with 22.5 percent of heterosexuals.

One might wonder that if it all comes down to discrimination, why don't African Americans seek mental health treatment more often than whites? The reason is threefold, as described in a separate study published last May in the Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved: financial barriers, community stigma, and poor quality of care.

Blacks may very well need mental health treatment in great numbers. Truth be told, we all could use a little therapy. That's why we turn to Oprah. Nevertheless, while not belittling hardships, being gay is different from being black.

For starters, there's an openly black man in the White House. About 52 percent of voters were at ease with this concept; and probably most the other 48 percent had more issues with the man's party than his skin hue. Also, blacks aren't turned away from their family or church for being black.

You'd be hard pressed to find a homosexual person who didn't grow up with the concept of the way it is supposed to be — boys kiss girls and girls kiss boys — and then be faced with the fact that they didn't fit in. In such a situation, your healthy mind begins questioning yourself. Self-esteem plummets. Then often you find yourself in a "gay" community seeking help from people just as whacked as you.

You can call the community gay but you can just as easily call it mad.

Access and prevention

The UCLA study should be a wakeup call.

This is not about a mental crash from those living in the fast lane, with hedonistic lifestyles driving homosexuals the likes of Mary Cheney or perhaps your co-worker into wanting a house, dog, or baby. This is about a minority (who will always stay a minority, with few mainstream advocates) who has been deprived of the essential human nutrient called respect.

Access to mental health care needs to improve. As summarized in a study published in the June 2008 issue of American Journal of Public Health, gays, like blacks, face financial barriers, but the reason is often because they lack the same health care afforded to married couples. Also, few mental health care providers are competent in dealing with issues of homosexuality, the study said. This leads some homosexuals to not divulge sexual or gender identity, for fear of being stereotyped.

Of course, it would be nice not to need the care in the first place.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.