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In the Spectrum

Local counseling center caters to the unique needs of the LGBT community

Imagine if wearing makeup put your life in danger. Or what if using a public bathroom, or the simple act of holding your significant other’s hand, made you the target of verbal and physical abuse?

 Those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community endure this on a daily basis, and studies have shown it takes a serious toll on their mental health.

 Although the nation’s view on such issues as gay marriage has shifted drastically in the past decade, clearing the way for many people to be more open about their lifestyles, a paradox still exists when it comes to sexual orientation and disorders such as depression and anxiety.

 According to the 2016 Annual Review of Clinical Psychology (ARCP), these maladies are up to twice as likely to appear in the LGBT community than among heterosexuals.

 In response to this, counseling and therapy centers specific to the needs of LGBT individuals exist in many major cities, including Chicago. The Center on Halsted and InstraSpectrum Counseling are two of the city’s most prominent LGBT psychotherapy practices, characterized by regular personal interactions between client and therapist. Dr. Ian Bonner, the executive director of IntraSpectrum, believes the work done by counseling centers like these is invaluable to the community.

 “For a big chunk of the people who come here, this isn’t the first place they’ve tried to have psychotherapy,” Bonner said. “People have had bad experiences elsewhere. Some have had perfectly good, well-meaning therapists who were trying to be supportive and affirming, but didn’t have either the lived experience or professional experience…to really relate to some important things.”

 IntraSpectrum, in the Andersonville neighborhood, has a staff of LGBT therapists who are paired with LGBT clients based on the clients’ preferences, needs and availability. Troy Gibson specializes in helping clients of color and also thinks LGBT folks need therapists who can relate to them on a personal level.

 “I think it’s necessary to have safe spaces for the [LGBT] community, especially regarding mental health, because mental health is already stigmatized,” Gibson said. “I think it’s necessary to have spaces like [IntraSpectrum] to normalize the clients’ experiences and find a community that supports them, that they might not be able to find elsewhere.”

 There are several factors that contribute to poor mental health in the LGBT community. One is the general discrimination still present in much of American society, even if it’s not as overt as it used to be. This contributes to “minority stress,” which Bonner believes is especially harmful.

 “Minority stress is the very real lived experience of life being harder” because of your identity, Bonner said. “That stress aggregates and causes mental, emotional and physical symptoms over time. Some people have grown up or lived in such a state of minority stress for so long that they don’t even know it’s there. They don’t know they’re stressed out all the time because they’ve never felt any different.”

Studies show discrimination is still rampant in American society. Fifty percent of gay men surveyed reported experiencing some form of discrimination in the past year, and 24 percent of bisexual men said the same, according to a report published in 2014 in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Gay and bisexual women were treated similarly — 54 percent of lesbians reported discrimination in the past year, as well as 17 percent of bisexual women.

Another reason for high levels of mental illness within this group is the lack of support they receive from their loved ones. The ACRP reported that many LGBT youth are hesitant to come out to their parents and friends for fear of rejection, and Gibson said he’s witnessed this first hand.

 “There’s fear related to [LGBT] identities, because society unfortunately doesn’t accept LGBT identities,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of fear about…rejection, fear of prejudice, fear of [job] termination. I think that definitely contributes to higher anxiety, higher suicidal ideation and higher depressive symptoms.”

 These fears are warranted. Rejection by parents can and does lead to homelessness for LGBT youth. Forty percent of the population served by homeless shelters and “drop-in” centers in the U.S. identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to a 2012 survey by the Williams Institute. A 2009 study published in the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology also found that youth who experience rejection or discrimination from loved ones are eight times more likely to have suicidal thoughts, six times more likely to be depressed and three times more likely to cope using illegal drugs than their straight counterparts.

 Some have asked, are there mental illnesses unique to the LGBT community? Not necessarily, according to Bonner and Gibson. However, there are stressors LGBT individuals face that heterosexual people do not.

 “One thing that’s unique to LGBT populations specifically, even from other minority populations, is that it’s an identity that’s still stigmatized and not shared by your family or your immediate friends,” Bonner said. “So relational issues – dating, friendships, even parent-child relationships – are particularly different. Sure, there’s straight people who have bad relationships with their family, but disproportionately… [LGBT people are reminded that] trust and unconditional love are not givens – these are things that can be revoked.”

 Luckily, there are ways to reduce the amount of prejudice society shows toward the LGBT community. Perhaps the best way is community outreach, which is an emphasis at IntraSpectrum.

 “Going out into a community where people may not know that we exist or may not know where to get these [mental health] resources, gives them access to things they may have never seen before,” he said.

 Outreach also serves to educate people about subjects they may be willfully or unintentionally ignorant about.

 “Andersonville is a wonderful little bubble of a neighborhood, but there’s just so much that people don’t know or don’t have access to,” Bonner said. “If anyone’s interested in better care for anyone that they work with who might be LGBT…maybe we’re not going to see those people as clients, but maybe we can make change in the community to spread knowledge and tolerance.”

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