Improving mental health for LGBTQ+ people requires compassion, understanding from all

People with rainbow cloud
Ariel Lung/Senior Staff

The month of June commemorates LGBTQ+ Pride, and I believe that an important way we can celebrate Pride Month is to honor the impact lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, gender-nonconforming and queer-identifying individuals have had on our collective history.

Pride Month is more than a celebration of queer life and sexuality. Pride, as we know it today, originated as an anniversary celebration for the political and social uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — a pivotal tipping point for the liberation of LGBTQ+ persons. Over the past 50 years, society has seen a shift toward more inclusivity and equality. Yet at the same time, there is still so much that has yet to change. With that said, I also firmly believe that another meaningful way we can truly honor Pride is to make the effort to understand the issues that continue to affect the LGBTQ+ community today.

In my role as a psychologist for the students at UC Berkeley, I frequently bear witness to the pain, trauma, discrimination and violence that our community continues to endure at the hands of both strangers and loved ones alike. I have frequently been brought to tears when I hear about my students’ experiences with rejection when coming out or when they share their internalized homophobia or transphobia, which essentially means having negative feelings toward one’s own sexual orientation or gender identity.

When I hear these stories, there is a part of that pain that resonates so deeply with my own history. Raised as a first-generation Mexican American cis woman in Texas, I was cognizant from a very young age of how I deviated from the traditional expectations of my parents. My awareness of this dissonance instilled a tremendous weight of fear within my soul.

When I first came to embrace my queer identity, I felt ashamed for not being the daughter my family and society wanted me to be. It was emotional labor to unpack years of internalized stigma, to embrace self-acceptance and to build the self-esteem to inoculate myself from the expectations of others. I provide this brief glimpse into my life in order to convey my personal experiences of the intricacies of identity intersectionality and to describe how these insights later shaped how I work as an educator, therapist and friend.

Over the years, I have dedicated my career to developing, organizing and maintaining resources and services that center multidimensional aspects of wellness for students who identify as LGBTQ+ — especially LGBTQ+ students of color. It has been my role to support and encourage those who are in desperate need of support and acceptance because I am keenly aware of how important these factors are for our community’s mental health.

The psychological impact of stigma is positively correlated with mental health outcomes. At Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, we run data analytics to identify trends and community needs that then inform our outreach initiatives.

For example, in the 2018-19 school year, students at UC Berkeley who identify as LGBTQ+ and/or gender-noncomforming often reported higher rates of stress, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Of these students, almost 67 percent reported having experienced thoughts of suicide at some point, 60 percent reported currently experiencing suicidal ideation, and 53 percent reported currently engaging in self-harm behaviors. In addition, 1 in 3 report engaging in a suicide attempt at one point across their lifespans. Over the past five years, there has been a whopping 112 percent increase in students with these identities accessing counseling services at CAPS.

If you put these numbers into context, it tells us that while on the one hand, things are getting better in some ways (e.g., marriage equality), on the other, there are many members of the LGBTQ+ community who are still hurting, still healing and still feeling hopeless.

I think there are many ways we can all can make efforts to improve the cultural climate at UC Berkeley and beyond. To start, we need to make space to talk about mental health. Let’s embrace our thoughts and feelings with loving kindness and check in with those who may seem to be struggling.

It is a common misconception that to share our difficulties means we are weak or not brave, when in fact, the opposite is true. It takes courage to admit when we are not OK and to confront our vulnerabilities. When reaching out to others, it is OK to not know what to say; many simply benefit from having someone, anyone, listen to them with a compassionate ear. With this practice, we can set an example of love and acceptance for one another.

When a person feels seen, it can do wonders for their sense of self and self-efficacy. Ask for pronouns. Make the effort to learn appropriate terminology. Practice eliminating discriminatory language from your repertoire. Have conversations about gender and sexuality centered on inclusiveness. In these ways, we can honor the women, men and gender-nonbinary folx who have suffered the pain of discrimination for simply being their authentic selves.

It is these practices that nurture the resilience of our community, and it is resilience that affords us the capacity to endure in the face of discrimination, violence and brutality. In your words and actions, show that you are making the effort to embody the values of Pride and contribute to co-creating a world that embraces individuality, diversity and acceptance.

Elizabeth Aranda is a psychologist with UC Berkeley Counseling and Psychological Services who specializes in transgender care, LGBTQ+ identity development and services for the Latinx community and other communities of color.