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SALT LAKE CITY — While symbols and celebrations embracing the LGBTQ community are widespread during Pride Month, mental health experts say continued support and resources for the community are vital as higher mental health concerns persist year-round.
Mental health experts from the University of Utah and Hunstman Mental Health Institute discussed the mental health difficulties of the community in a panel on Wednesday.
"This kind of a forum really matters to me not only because we're seeing kids dying, but we're seeing a lot of suffering that is completely unnecessary. This is my community," said JoAnn Cook, panelist and member of Huntsman Mental Health Institute's Teenscope program.
The panel discussed the rates and concerns regarding the population's mental health, the challenges individuals face while navigating the health system, and how "we can expand from pronouns to parades to be supportive of the LGBTQIA community." The "I" in the acronym usually stands for "intersex," and the "A" can stand for "asexual" or "ally" to the LGBTQ community.
Approximately 4.5% of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 39% of them reported having a mental illness in the past year, according to Mental Health America.
Utah's continued struggle with mental health has persisted throughout the years; the state has ranked among the top 10 for the highest suicide mortality rates. Suicide rates among youth and young adults have been a part of ongoing conversations in the state among elected officials, advocates and educators.
In Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death for youth and young adults ages 10 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. LGBTQ youth who experience higher rates of suicide in comparison to their peers have been recently centered in those conversations, according to the Trevor Project.
Struggles LGBTQ people can face
Panelists pointed to a variety of factors contributing to mental health concerns among the LGBTQ community: community and parental support, gender-affirming physicians and access to health care, and recent legislation.
"People who identify as LGBTQIA do much better when they have supportive families and communities around them. That alienation or lack of acceptance from family can lead to disproportionately more depression and anxiety and mental health issues," said Anna Docherty, panelist and statistical geneticist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
Another barrier individuals can face includes accessing health care for both physical and mental health.
"I would add from the perspective of many of our trans and gender-diverse patients to access the Transgender Health Program many folks are under or uninsured, and so their access to mental health care in the first place is very, very limited," said Ariel Lee Malan, panelist and member of University of Utah Health Transgender Health Program.
Even when people in the community can access health care, it can be difficult if it feels as if their physician isn't gender-affirming, panelists added.
"There is not enough mental health care providers who are competent and affirming and understanding the needs of queer and trans people," said Malan. "I hope to bring more of a systematic lens on what our systems can be doing to better serve LGBTQ-plus people and their mental health needs."
How to give support
Physicians can express support for their patients by identifying themselves as and registering as LGBTQ-friendly on online platforms. Beyond the internet, physicians can create a comfortable space for members by using supportive language and utilizing physical symbols such as pride flags in office spaces.
"I really liked that idea of having spaces that individuals don't have to put in that extra effort and can just be in and of itself, can alleviate some of the psychosocial stress, environmental stress that individuals feel when they're just trying to get by," said Cook.
Parents of an LGBTQ child can demonstrate support for their child by facilitating conversations, panelists added.
"Well, I would say the most important thing is connection between parents and children; that if you see your child as a person, for who they are — and you connect with them on what they prefer, how they identify, and really sit with them and give them that space — you can actively listen while giving yourself space to process," said Jessica Holzbauer, panelist and member of Huntsman Mental Health Institute's Teenscope program.
Members of the community as a whole can demonstrate support by being involved and participating in advocacy.
"We have an ethical imperative to be really active allies as family members and providers, community members," said Holzbauer. "We need to take the initiative to learn these things ourselves, become competent, and to really advocate for people in our communities. So, silence is not an option if you want to be an advocate."