By Philip Qualo, STAR Center Program Manager
I am a Black man who happens to be gay. In my mid-20s I revealed my sexual orientation to friends and family who in turn expressed both support and concern. The common perception was that facing prejudice and homophobia would make it twice as hard to achieve my life goals.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that the quality of life for Americans who are from minority communities continues to be substantially diminished compared to their majority counterparts-especially in terms of housing, education, income, obesity, homicides, HIV infection, health care access and preventative health services as well as potentially preventable hospitalizations. In recent years, the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender and Questioning (GLBTQ) community has similarly fought against discrimination and oppression and has earned public recognition of its status as a disadvantaged minority group. However, the GLBTQ community is inherently diverse in and of itself since sexual orientation is not based on skin color, ethnicity or religion.
The STAR Center is a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funded technical assistance center assigned the task of enhancing cultural competency and diversity in the mental health field. In my role as program manager, I could not help but wonder whether individuals living with mental illness who are GLBTQ and members of a racial or cultural minority face twice as many obstacles when it comes to recovery compared to other people. In other words, are they less likely to achieve recovery and mental health wellness than their majority counterparts?
According to a study conducted at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health that included lesbian, gay and bisexual populations, racial and cultural minorities do not experience more "mental disorders" than whites. Surprisingly, the most underserved individuals in the study, Black GLBTQ individuals, had the least number of mental health challenges in comparison.
Based on the theory that prejudice-related stress would increase risk for mental disorders, researchers typically expect that Black lesbians, gay men and bisexuals face prejudice related to both racism and homophobia and therefore would have more disorders than their white counterparts. "These findings suggest that black lesbians, gay men and bisexuals have effective ways to cope with prejudice related to racism and homophobia," noted Ilan H. Meyer, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study. It is impossible to cite any definitive reason for these findings because of the inherent individual diversity among study participants. However, it has been noted that gays and lesbians are more likely to seek mental health services than their straight counterparts, and so are more likely to address any mental health challenges early on.
What can be gleaned from this information? Belonging to multiple underserved groups, or even just one, does not necessarily guarantee the likelihood of mental illness or failed recovery. At the same time, culture matters, and mental health maintenance that acknowledges and integrates cultural or sexual identity experiences can and needs to be a priority for all individuals. Although minority groups continue to experience substantial disparities in terms of access to treatment, every individual and community has the power to develop effective coping skills, supports and programs, particularly with the wealth of tools, tips and guides that are available through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the NAMI STAR Center, SAMHSA, providers and numerous other organizations and resources.
Philip Qualo, J.D. is a program manager at the NAMI STAR Center, which is a SAMHSA-funded technical assistance center dedicated to meeting the recovery needs of underserved communities by increasing cultural competency, diversity and social inclusion and promoting self-help and empowerment tools and messages for mental health and community wellness. Please visit us at www.consumerstar.org.