The LGBTQ+ community is suffering a mental health crisis. We must act now to close the health gap

Over the past month, we’ve been reflecting on LGBTQ+ health inequalities and the ways we can work to build a safe, healthy and equal future for LGBTQ+ people. These matters have gained momentum in the wake of Pride month, and at the Maya Centre, we’re renewing our commitment to creating an inclusive space for women from all backgrounds.

While the past month has presented the opportunity for us to raise awareness of the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, it’s also clear that our support cannot cease just because Pride has come to a close. Existing evidence shows that health outcomes are generally worse for LGBTQ+ people than the rest of the population, and that many LGBTQ+ people feel that their specific needs are not taken into account when accessing healthcare. The Covid-19 crisis has both highlighted and intensified these inequalities, with LGBTQ+ people reporting worsening mental health, financial difficulties, increasing risk of domestic abuse, homelessness and isolation.

Now, a major new study investigating the widening health gap has found lesbian, gay and bisexual people are more than twice as likely as heterosexual people to have a long-term mental health condition.

The research, conducted over a seven year period from 2011-2018 by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) for NHS Digital, found that LGB people reported lower average mental wellbeing scores than heterosexual people, while around 16% of respondents reported having a long-term mental or behavioural disorder, compared with 6% of heterosexual adults.

The report also found that LGB people were more likely to smoke and drink heavily. One third of LGB adults drank more than the recommended units of alcohol a week compared with a quarter of heterosexual people, while those from ethnic minority communities were more likely than heterosexual people to drink.

Elsewhere, the study showed stark health disparities for LGB women. Not only did they score the lowest of all groups in mental wellbeing, but they also were also more likely to drink at levels that put them at increased or higher risk of alcohol-related harm. One in three LGB women were more likely to smoke, compared with one in six heterosexual women.

The poor health outcomes experienced by the LGBTQ+ community can be linked to factors such as a lack of cultural competency in the healthcare system, and the corrosive effects of discrimination and homophobia. A recent study in the journal Health Psychology found that sustained exposure to homophobia can create significant physiological stress, giving way to serious chronic health problems such as cardiovascular disease.

The research shows the importance of monitoring differences in health status and behaviours among the LGBTQ+ community. In the wake of Pride month, we must continue to give exposure to the specific health issues facing the community, and actively work to eliminate the disparities that cause negative health outcomes.

It’s clear that this won’t happen overnight, but will require long-term resources and attention by the government and healthcare providers. But by collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity, improving training and educational information on LGBTQ+ health issues for healthcare professionals, and listening to feedback from LGBTQ+ people on their health concerns, we will begin to see a tangible improvement in the LGBTQ+ community’s health and wellbeing.

Image: Getty