Psychiatry has throughout its history and still is very much linked with control and upholding societal standards. The view many people have is that at its core, even though it may be failing, the mental health system exists to help us be happier. And while it’s true there may be individuals in the system who wish this, the very structure is built around an idea of societal norm, and returning people to acceptable states of being and productivity. Part of that history of western psychiatry has been its link to LGBTQ+ rights – or more specifically the denial of such rights and the pathologisation of the community as mentally ill. So here is a very brief overview of some of that history today.
But first, why is this important? Well, the history and injustice of psychiatry is really important to understand because the way the system operates now is directly built on this, so we’re still seeing discrimination of all kinds. We can’t just fund a harmful system, we have to review it, build alternatives etc etc. If we do not understand this history we cannot engage in meaningfully informed conversations about what the future of mental health care might look like, because we risk making the same mistakes by perpetuating the system.
So here’s some fast facts about psychiatry and gay rights:
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) didn’t declassify being gay as a mental illness until 1992.
- They didn’t declassify being transgender as a mental illness until 2019.
- Between 1935 – 74 chemical and electrical experiments were done on gay men in psychiatric hospitals to try to change their sexuality in a process known as ‘aversion therapy’. Some men were made to do this to avoid going to jail for engaging in homosexual activity. Conversion therapy is still a practice in many places today, an ongoing demonstration of this abuse and trauma inflicted upon LGBTQ people.
- Being gay was also criminalised, as well as being classed as a mental illness, until 1973. This is a clear example of the direct link between psychiatry and criminalization. Under these laws over 100,000 men were convicted in the 20th century. One such example is Alan Turing who was forced to endure hormone ‘therapy’ to ‘cure’ him, or go to jail. He chose the former and was chemically castrated – as were many other men. It was not until 2017 that the UK offered pardons to the thousands of gay men convicted of abolished sexual offences, simply because of their sexuality.
- Gender dysphoria and incongruence (for example) are still used to pathologise being trans – meaning they are terms that label being trans as some kind of individual mental defect, and means transgender people have to jump through hoops before they can access gender affirming care
- 1 in 7 LGBT people avoid treatment for fear of discrimination nowadays
The joint stigma surrounding mentally ill people and LGBTQ+ people means that they are seen as people to be feared, shunned, or fixed by many. And much of that stems from this history listed above. It is true that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience mental illness:
- 52% experienced depression in the last year
- One in eight LGBT people aged 18-24 said they’ve attempted to take their own life in the last year
- One in six LGBT people said they drank alcohol almost every day over the last year.
- Almost half of trans people said they have thought about taking their own life
These statistics are unsurprising when we consider the intersectional nature of mental illness. It’s not something that exists in a vacuum, and although it may be experienced by an individual it is not an individual flaw. Economic insecurity, discrimination, exclusion, lack of support, homelessness, addiction – these all compound mental distress, understandably, and LGBTQ+ people are likely to suffer more with all of the above. But treatment often focuses only on the individual symptoms, and fails to address the bigger picture, which leaves LGBTQ+ people at even more of a disadvantage. And that’s without even considering the discrimination, homophobia and transphobia within mental health care, which puts an unreasonable expectation on LGBTQ+ people to trust the providers of their care when they haven’t been proven to be safe:
- One in eight LGBT people (13 per cent) have experienced some form of unequal treatment from healthcare staff because they’re LGBT.
- Almost one in four LGBT people (23 per cent) have witnessed discriminatory or negative remarks against LGBT people by healthcare staff. In the last year alone, six per cent of LGBT people – including 20 percent of trans people – have witnessed these remarks.
- One in twenty LGBT people (five per cent) have been pressured to question or change their sexual orientation when accessing healthcare services.
- One in five LGBT people (19 per cent) aren’t out to any healthcare professional about their sexual orientation when seeking general medical care. This number rises to 40 per cent of bi men and 29 percent of bi women
I think at the very least, LGBTQ+ people should be able to choose mental health care with professionals that reflect their lived experience, but this is so often not an option and as a result they are unable to engage with their care, and may even be blamed for it. But the history of LGBTQ rights is full of stories of community care and community love, and for a community that has good reason to be distrustful of authority figures, perhaps the key lies in modelling peer support and community care on the rich love of LGBT history. I don’t know all the answers; I have opinions, but I do not feel confident enough to say I definitely know what’s right. I do however know it’s time to move forwards and forge a new future. We’re going to get things wrong still, it’s inevitable, but maybe if we’re a bit more aware and intentional about mitigating harm, we can see a brighter tomorrow for mental health care, and the LGBTQ+ community.