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VIEWPOINT The common thread of LGBTQ+ stigma and mental health
2020-09-02

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The relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and mental health has always varied from country to country. But when religion enters the conversation, a whole new aspect escalates the stigma.

Countries all over the world have high rates of mental health problems within their LGBTQ+ communities. This is often because of structural stigma escalated by religious beliefs against LGBTQ+ acceptance and religious leaders fanning those flames.

Religion is not the only social factor determining acceptance of a nation's LGBTQ+ community. Additional factors like political climate, education, healthcare and structural stigma are all very relevant as to why LGBTQ+ discourse is the way it is in a given country. Religion lies among many factors—but it has a mass following.

In 2016, Italian bishops cut back the release of an LGBTQ+ film; it wound up being restricted to 10 movie theaters under the belief that it was "indecent." The homophobic rhetoric and influence of religious leaders, such as what occurred in Italy, only escalates a difficult situation for their LGBTQ+ community.

A 2017 Pachankis and Branstrom life satisfaction graph found that an LGBTQ+ individual's life satisfaction would be much higher in a low structurally stigmatic country, like Finland, versus a high structurally stigmatic country like Poland. Poland and Finland are quite different countries, but among the notable differences between them is that Poland is more traditional and religious. Krakow's Catholic archbishop, Marek Jedraszewski publicly condemned the "LGBTQ+ ideal." Many of its leaders have spoken ill of the LGBTQ+ community, insinuating that by being gay, you're committing a sin against God and are a threat to "traditional values." This fear-mongering has led to "LGBT-free zones'' throughout the country. When a religious leader with extraordinary influence and power escalates the tension for in the LGBTQ+ community, discrimination will ensue.

However, religion constantly changes in the lenses of culture, society, language, and history. When we look at a different country, such as Ghana, their views toward Christianity play out differently than somewhere in Eastern Europe might. The justification to discriminate looks different as well. For example, the Criminal Offenses Act of Ghana criminalizes consensual same-sex acts between adults under "unnatural carnal knowledge." Offenses can lead to up to three years in prison. Ghanian Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches ( GPCC ) have contributed heavily to anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and the destructive social stigma, especially considering their association with political leaders and media organizations.

Of course, the United States is no exception. Although we applaud ourselves for being progressive compared to many other countries, there's still a lot of work to be done and a lot of work that took far too long to obtain. The performative, hyper-religious, conservative population is a ball and chain strapped to the structural progression of the LGBTQ+ community. It was only a few weeks ago that LGBTQ+ individuals were granted job security based on sexual orientation because of the Supreme Court's ruling on the landmark Civil Rights Law—which was opposed by religious groups. Within that same week the GOP gave the green light to strip away healthcare privileges from many LGBTQ+ residents, which was a win for President Trump's heavily religious base.

The consequences of this game of back-and-forth with basic rights is detrimental. Mark Hatzenbuehler conducted an experiment that measured the mental health of LGBTQ+ communities based on before and after certain states passed policies against marriage equality in 2004. The data found a 36.6% increase in mood disorders after a same-sex marriage ban. Additional data also found that PTSD, dysthymia, generalized anxiety disorder, and comorbidity we're all much higher among LGBTQ+ individuals living in states with structural forms of stigma than states without it. Many factors in a given country contribute to LGBTQ+ structural stigma, but when discrimination is escalated by a religious base, the consequences worsen.

Those stuck at the bottom rungs of the equality ladder are at much more severe risk of mental health disorders than other "progressive" countries. But the truth is that even in ostensibly progressive, left-leaning countries, discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals still exists with devastating consequences and that's why the push for equality, justice, proper funding and fair research is so significant. It's important to prevent religious intolerance from slowing the progression toward justice for LGBTQ+ individuals because the difference is between life and death.

Emily Reilly is studying journalism and film at DePaul University, and has written for The DePaulia and Windy City Times.


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