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Center Chief Program Officer addresses LGBT suicide risks in current climate
by Matt Simonette
2017-09-20

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The United States recently recognized National Suicide Prevention Week, at which time experts noted that recent and continuing events—including those both directly and indirectly affecting the LGBT community—can be taxing to one's mental health.

"The stress that the country is going through, and the confusing messages we go through—messages of hate, messages of love—really impact those who are vulnerable and in isolation," said Hector Torres, Chief Program Officer at Center on Halsted.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the rate of suicide increased by 24 percent between 1999-2014 in the United States. About 43,000 Americans took their own lives in 2015. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among adults in the United States and the second leading cause of death among young people.

A large number of those individuals at risk are members of the LGBT community. Social isolation, Torres noted, is a key risk factor for those who contemplate, attempt or complete suicide, and that adds to a vulnerability many LGBT individuals, especially LGBT young people, might be inclined towards. As such, suicide attempts—there is not a lot of data available on completed suicide attempts—are disproportionately higher among LGBT youth.

"We are born to a world where we figure out that there is a difference with us, and that difference is associated with 'not good,'" he added. "We are born into a world where there is still a stigma against LGBTQ [persons]. Even though there are efforts to get rid of that stigma, we still have it. It impacts those who are younger more—they have not been able to develop the tools to push back towards a society that is so negative. Therefore, our young people are one of the most vulnerable groups most vulnerable.

The level and nature of a young person's engagement with their family also is a determinant of their risk.

"One of the assurances that is very comforting about the nuclear family is to think that they will always be there: 'No matter what I will do, they will love me.' Sexual orientation and gender-identity can be interpreted by youth as something that can disrupt that link. That can be very scary and feel like the end of the world," Torres noted, adding that other risk factors such as poverty and racism can complicate an LGBT youth's life even further.

According to Torres, "Adolescence is one of the times where you start separating as an individual, becoming your own self. It's a time to figure out who you are. When you realize you belong to a group that a lot of people don't like, hate or have a lot of strong emotions towards, it leads to a lot of conflict."

The risk factors for LGBT suicide are especially high during a person's youth, but also increase as they get older, Torres noted.

"The core factor is isolation," he explained. "With the young population, the isolation happens because, 'I don't control the social circles where I'm at, such as at school. I'm not surrounded by people I choose.' The same thing happens in [older] adult life. Unfortunately, our seniors are tending to isolate. It doesn't happen only among the LGBTG individuals, but we do see that trend being more significant with them."

In older-adult social circles, or social-services delivery, there is often an assumption of being heterosexual and cisgender that can impact an LGBT person more profoundly. "With age, we might not have our nuclear family as close, or they might have been lost, and the isolation becomes very real," Torres added, adding that the sense of loss can be amplified in persons who have lost loved ones or acquaintances to HIV/AIDS.

Torres also noted that suicide risk factors are especially profound with transgender and bisexual persons. Both communities might sometimes feel additionally isolated and stigmatized by other gay and lesbian persons.

"In the LGBT community, there is still a great stigma towards 'T' individuals," he explained. "There is a greater lack of understanding and empathy from individuals in the greater community, who discriminate and don't accept the 'T' as part. … Success that we've had with the 'LG" part of the community—such as elimination from the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]—we still have not achieved that with the trans population."

Members of the bisexual community are likewise sometimes left at a disadvantage because of a marked tendency by society to rely on "definites," Torres said. "It makes us stressed to be left in a position that is ambiguous or 'in the middle.' Bisexual individuals are often perceived by others, and treated by others, as someone in the middle—not black or white, or in or out. They receive the stigma of someone who's not fully defined."

The Center has recently received an increase in the volume of calls seeking services, he noted, adding that there is often a marked uptick in calls after events such as the 2016 Pulse shooting in Orlando, or widespread news reports on efforts to marginalize the LGBT community. Torres also said that those already utilizing the Center's counseling and mental-health services report greater distress during such times.

Torres said, "I am a believer that we should be able to express our emotions at all times," but added that persons should consider assistance when, after an extended period of time, they cannot "shake off" negative emotional responses.

"As human beings, we should be able to have the range of emotions from sadness to happiness, and we need to feel sad sometimes," he added. "But when we cannot shake it off, when it persists, and it is with us for most of the day, for many days, that should be a cause of worry. If we don't have someone we can talk to, who can care for us, we should we be reaching out."

Those who think they might be at risk can consult a number of resources, Torres added, among them the Trevor Project or the It Gets Better campaign. Locally, he said individuals can also contact the Center's behavioral health department.

"We have a person who will help individuals navigate our resources and their needs," he said.

The Trevor Project is at the trevorproject.org, while the It Gets Better Project is at itgetsbetter.org . Mayo Clinic's article on suicide awareness is at mayocl.in/2tK7JKh.

Center on Halsted's behavioral health department can be reached at 773-472-6469, ext. 460.

Next week: Additional coverage of the issue of suicide in the LGBT community.


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