Windmill Tilter – Being a gay teenager is not a mental illness!

Or …how gay teenagers might fare in our modern mental health era.

I help moderate a Facebook discussion group called UnDiagnosing Emotional Distress where we are working on formulating language and solutions to mental suffering. It turns out that labels and medications may help some people, but often harm many others. Often people get mental health labels for normal human emotional distress to normal human situations like grief, trauma, bad relationship with parents or significant others, poor job fits, or poor exercise or nutrition, or messed up sleep patterns.  We’d love for everyone possible to join our discussion on Twitter and Facebook to help these kind of situations not get turned into a lifelong diagnoses.

While mental health care can be a lifesaver for some people and very beneficial, for others it is not such a good thing. Make sure you get both side of the information. Here is a video explaining why you have to get your own mental health information these days.

How the American Psychiatric Association is working to revise diagnoses for gay teenagers:

We recently had a discussion started where a group member wanted input for a paper on how creating diagnostic categories like gender identity disorder can be helpful or harmful.  This is a good current topic since the American Psychiatric Association is working on revising their diagnosis manual currently. Many gender identity advocates fought for a long time to say that being a gay teenage is not a mental illness, but now it might go back to that definition.  Here’s a good article from the gender identity community analyzing the impact this diagnotic change might have for gay teenagers and what you can do about it.

Wellness Wordworks' tableless display table at the Midwest Queer Fest trying to get honest mental health information to gay teenagers

Wellness Wordworks' tableless display table at the Midwest Queer Fest trying to get honest mental health information to gay teenagers

What is interesting to keep in mind is that every oppressed community in the world has higher rates of “mental illness.” A book called “The Protest Psychosis” talked about schizophrenia in the 60’s going from a white housewife short term diagnosis to a young black male diagnosis. Being a gay teenager is not a mental illness any more than being a black person is an illness, yet civil rights advocates had to fight to take “drapetomania” out of the first diagnostic manual. This was a theoretical illness given to slaves who had a large desire to escape.

These are some great comments that one of our group members gave me permission to quote anonymously.

Windmill Tilter on the impact of diagnoses for gay teenagers:

I should also say those comments come from my own experience, from putting two and two together about the pressures that are out there, pressures that I have lived through as a gay teenager — not necessarily themes I’ve ever seen discussed academically, or really heard from anyone else out there.  I’d love to hear if others are out there having conversations along these lines.

I recently read a memoir called “Nina here nor there” by Nick Kreiger, a transgender individual. He made some interesting points about how complex it is to require a diagnosis in order to, say, access surgery or hormone treatments, while still maintaining an identity that you are healthy. It was just a lovely book that got at much more of the complexity than I’ve seen in other trans materials. The focus wasn’t on diagnosis itself, it was more of a secondary theme. Might be of interest.

For young queer people, who are often facing traumatic separation from their family (that was true for me) and really complex identity issues, the easy accessibility of diagnostic categories like bipolar and depression, can be just as (if not more) problematic than a diagnosis specific to gender/sexuality. I worry a lot about the ethical implications of  gay teenagers getting funneled onto drugs that suppress sexuality (e.g. SSRIs) for pretty normal responses to the oppression and trauma that can be quite acute for gay/lesbian/trans/bi people when they come out (and beyond).

Here is a her original blog about how being a gay teenager is not a mental illness. Part of it says:

Gay teenagers in the SSRI era:

It is really hard to come out, even these days.  A two to six-fold increase in the rate of the suicide attempts for gay teens (compared to controls) is often reported. If we take these stats at face value, and gay teens are more likely to kill themselves, I’m guessing they’re more likely to end up in psychological or psychiatric treatment as teens.  If I’m right, then gay teens are probably more likely to take SSRIs or other psych drugs, and thus more likely to experience the side effects of these drugs.  I’m also guessing that shutting down sexuality at that point might feel like relief.  But at what cost?  I was on SSRIs in my early 20s, and they absolutely shut me down sexually.  I felt it as a relief, at least initially, but I had also already had time to establish my identity as a lesbian by that point, and eventually I came to my senses and got off of them.  What if I had gone on SSRIs in high school when I had only just begun to understand my identity as a lesbian?

Difficulties with my family over my sexuality were a huge component of what pulled me into the psychiatric system at age 20.  Not once did any doctor or psychologist in my early treatment ask me about how I was coping with coming out, how my family had reacted.  It was much easier to diagnose me than to put together that I had just lost all of my family support, both financial and personal, and that maybe, just maybe, this was contributing to my emotional state.  I was fiercely protective of my family, and even if someone had tried, I might not have accepted that interpretation.   But my medical records make it abundantly clear that no one even tried to put two and two together.  It was easier to hand me some Depakote and send me on my way.

What being a gay teenager should and should not look like:

Kansas City's Fae of the Wildwood Performing at the 2011 Midwest Queer Fest

Kansas City's Fae of the Wildwood Performing at the 2011 Midwest Queer Fest

Actually, I see more than a “hands off” approach to mental health issues in gay advocacy. I’ve seen a few pushes here and there for MORE of recruiting young people for labeling and medications.  There was a California group pushing for kids to be able to see mental health professionals at school without parental consent, pushed as a way for gay kids to get help without being outed.  I wouldn’t ever want one of my kids to  see a mental health professional without my consent or knowledge at school. Instead, we need to admit how hard it is to be an oppressed minority in any country, regardless of which country or which minority group.

We need to teach gay teenagers how to handle their trauma issues and let them know it’s normal to feel horrible if you’re bullied at high school, rejected by your parents, or completely unsure whether you are an OK individual. We need to let people know it gets better, so the You -Tube video campaign along these lines was right on. If people knew that gay teenagers didn’t have to be exactly like anyone else, it would go a long way. Emotional distress from an awful situation might even include disconnecting with reality a bit, or being super happy and super sad sometimes, or not being able to concentrate or even wanting to die. These are human reactions to mental suffering, not something that requires diagnosing and medication. The most helpful thing is just talking to someone who’s been through it. Being a gay teenager is hard, but it’s not a mental illness. Make sure you fully research all the mental health information you find.

What do you think about gay teenagers and mental illness?

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