Last weekend I had the privilege to do a Mental Health Awareness drive to female sexual minorities. I say privilege because this is a group many do not think about when they do target awareness drives ie tailoring mental health awareness messages to different groups especially those considered at most risk. When it comes to pairing, most people dwell on mental health and the youth, mental health and women, mental health and HIV/AIDs or mental health and Drug&Substance Abuse. I recently attended a mental health and torture in public hospitals report validation meeting which more or less mental health and human rights. Rarely do you hear, and I have never heard about mental health and sexual minorities which brings the question. Do sexual minorities have mental health issues or are they just too queer for the mental health advocates to ‘touch them’?
Having interacted with a few sexual minorities in the past years through my work in sexual and reproductive health rights, I titled my talk 5s.
To partly answer my question, the African setting comes into play for the fact that being queer(which I will henceforth interchange with sexual minority ie LGBTI) is seen as being un-African. I know many papers have been written about the origin of queerness in Africa viewed from a traditional/cultural angle where it is seen to be a Western concept, a ‘natural’ one where the reasoning is if animals know it is meant to be male and female why would humans decide otherwise and religious one among many other angles. It is unfortunate that these views have clouded many mental health crusaders preventing them from looking at sexual minorities and their mental health.Despite all the debates on where, why and even how to ‘correct’ queers, the fact remains that they are live among us and like any other human, are predisposed to mental health issues and even more because of the stigma around them.
Mental Health is already a tabooed subject in many African settings and adding queerness heightens the obstacles sexual minorities have to battle with daily. Issues of trying to ‘correct’ oneself or having forced correction – rape to accepting their sexuality and dealing with the depression that comes along with not knowing how to ‘come out’ puts this group more at risk. Stigma from all the above mentioned angles and more so the lack to avenues to get proper mental health services increases their predisposition to mental health. As mental health crusaders, we need to give them attention and tailor make more avenues for engagement, treatment and ignorance elimination.
2. Support Group
Irregardless of our sexual orientation, we are all at risk to getting a mental health problem. The difference between those who already have and those who don’t is ‘triggers’. Different people have different triggers. Whenever I do talks, i love beginning with introductions then playing peak & pit where participants discuss their high (peaks) and lows (pits). During my drive, I met my first Muslim sexual minority and heard about the obstacles they face by being African, Queer and Muslim and also their peaks from supportive partners, sexual escapades to school achievements. I remember before they opened up, the drive organizer kept reminding them that they were in a safe space. Most minorities suffer from anxiety of being different from the majority and the comfort of numbers and the realization that one is not alone helps push them through another day. The organisation that invited me for the talk is one such space and there are many other groups by sexual minorities for sexual minorities. Joining one does go a long way in easing one’s mind and reducing the risks and triggers.
Just as different people have different triggers and elasticity, different people choose different methods to deal with their issues and Substance abuse is one method many use. Those at higher risk of getting mental health disorders like queers may put themselves at even higher risk by choosing substance abuse as their way to deal with the stigma and lack of support around them. This not only puts them on the first lane to get a mental health issue but also escalates the disorder one already has leading to more complications, less productivity and loss of interest in many things including the will to live. Getting proper diagnosis and living by the doctor’s advice is the best way to deal. Exercise, a good diet and joining a support group also help in dealing.
As part of the introductions and the peaks and pits, one of the participants mentioned a sexual escapade as a peak. Most queers love sexual experimentation with their partners or in most cases multiple partners. The risk of HIV/AIDs cannot be ignored among this group and it is on a high as many are still discovering themselves and looking for partners. This predisposition further increases their chances of getting a mental health disorder as most end up getting HIV infected and the whole cycle of denial, self acceptance, the what-ifs take centre stage. There is an interrelation between HIV/AIDs, Substance Abuse and mental health, they are all a means and an end to each other and besides the above mentioned bits, queers need to practice safe sex.
This year’s World Mental Health Day theme is Depression and there is a very close link between depression and suicide. When one has faced all the stigma humanly possible to them, when they have looked for avenues to ‘come out’ and share about their orientation, when they have had sex with all types of people to ‘be sure’ and have abused all manner of drugs but still can’t find their footing, they sink into depression and the one thing they all want is a way out. Cases of queers committing suicide have been documented by various organisations and it all goes down to self. There is proper need for self awareness; who you are, where and why you are going and how you will get there. Having the serenity to know what you can and can’t achieve will be your ticket to living or not.
Sexual minorities need to be aware of their human rights and demand for them. Like we say in mental health advocacy, we are humans before we are ill…you are human before your sexual orientation.
Sitawa Wafula is a mental health ambassador in Kenya living with bipolar and depression. Follow her on twitter @sitawawafula or contact her via email firstname.lastname@example.org