In the spirit of Minority Mental Health Month and with Pride Month just passing, I want to take a moment to speak not only to those who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, but also to those who identify as members of the African-American community. This intersection can be a peculiar place for an individual to be, so I proudly and humbly salute those of you who are able to stand boldly within these two marginalized communities. I hope we are all able to expand our understanding and connect with others during Minority Mental Health Month.
The LGBTQIA community coexists within the dominant heterosexual society. For some, this can be a daunting and oppressive existence. For those who may be unaware of what the acronym LGBTQIA, sometimes shortened to LGBTQ+, stands for, the explanation is as follows: L(esbian) G(ay) B(isexual) T(ransgender) Q(ueer or questioning) I(ntersex) A(sexual or allied). This is a community of people who have persistently fought for their right to be treated as individuals, and to be given the same legal rights and privileges as heterosexual and cisgender* individuals.
However, due to discrimination and prejudices, members of the LGBTQ+ community face numerous personal and societal challenges. They can feel forced to conform to mainstream societal beliefs and some live with the stress of feeling different or as if they do not belong. Additionally, some in the LGBTQ+ community inherited values and ideologies in their upbringing that are contrary to their current values, sexual orientation or gender identity. Coming to the realization that some of your inherited beliefs go against who you are and having to navigate feelings that don’t align with others’ beliefs can be difficult. As a social worker, I understand the affects these challenges can have on an individual’s overall well-being, including their mental health. These experiences can cause individuals to develop a very lonely existence; one where depression, anxiety and even thoughts of suicide may fester and thrive.
Similarly, the fight for equality and rights for African Americans has been wrought with many challenges. Today, African Americans face trauma from varying perspectives. I recently attended a lecture with the Association of Black Social Workers, Los Angeles titled “Trauma in the Black Community.” This lecture offered a wealth of knowledge and insight into the trauma-inducing experiences that happen in black communities including gang presence and violence, poverty, insufficient access to quality healthcare, over policing and police brutality. The underlying impact these experiences have on African Americans can lead to tremendous feelings of worthlessness, depression or lack of respect for others.
Additionally, a number of African Americans in the United States, like myself, are direct descendants of Africans who were forced into slavery. During slavery, African people were stolen from their homeland and had their culture, heritage and freedom stripped away. Those who were enslaved were forced to live under inhumane living conditions without basic human rights. Forcibly living as slaves in a foreign country is a traumatic and distressing experience. It is assumed that these individuals experienced trauma, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. However, and unfortunately, little was known about mental illness during this time, and those who were enslaved were not offered opportunities to improve their lives. With advancements in medicine, we have learned that mental illnesses can be transmitted epigenetically and manifested generations down the line. This means that African Americans can be affected by and live with the trauma experienced by their ancestors.
Recent killings of ‘Trans’ people, particularly African American Trans women, have attracted media attention and have been widely publicized. These heinous acts remind me of the intersectionality these two communities have and the unique struggles they each face. Simultaneously traversing through these identities can increase feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression or anxiety, especially when discrimination and prejudice is prevalent. Additionally, those in these two communities who have limited access to quality physical and/or mental health care are at increased odds of developing maladaptive coping skills. Maladaptive coping skills are habits and traits that can be passed from one generation to the next. Some maladaptive coping skills are untreated mental illnesses, substance abuse, patterns of unhealthy relationships and thoughts of suicide. The point of intersection between identifying as African American and identifying as a member of the LGBTQ+ community can be a challenging place for some and a truly rewarding and liberating place for others. These individuals are a part of communities that can be resilient and supportive, in spite of the enduring hardships and societal pressures.
On the contrary, some individuals may experience loneliness, fear or hopelessness. For some African Americans, experiencing shame for having a mental illness or seeking treatment is a very intimidating reality. This experience can cause individuals to isolate themselves from others or develop a maladaptive coping mechanism. Some people do not support the LGBTQ+ community and suggest that their disapproval is because of religious reasons. Being in more than one marginalized community, while not fully feeling supported by either can cause individuals to feel alone and their risk for depression, anxiety, trauma or stress, in combination or individually, increases. Those who do not have support from their families or access to quality mental health services are at an increased risk of cultivating maladaptive coping behaviors, and potentially passing the mental health challenges on to the next generation.
As I close this piece, I would like to emphasize the importance of unity and compassion. Many of us have endured challenges, struggled with identity and battled with stigma. I think these commonalities encourage us all to look beyond our differences. For individuals who are not African American or who do not identify as LGBTQ+, I encourage you to be open to learning about these communities. With compassion, others will feel supported and will possibly be more receptive to seeking and receiving help. Learning about each other will help us unite and bridge the gap that misunderstanding and stigma create.
Throughout the month of July, we will be featuring a variety of voices within different minority communities in honor of Minority Mental Health Month to raise awareness of the unique challenges those in these communities face. We invite you to join along and help us build understanding and drive change.
*Cisgender: a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth – merriam-webster.com
Jordan D. Le Blanc, ACSW, is a Clinical Therapist in The Guidance Center’s Compton Program, where he helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. He is passionate about creating spaces of intergenerational growth and healing in underserved communities. Before joining The Guidance Center team in December, 2018, Le Blanc worked with Low-income families, foster youth and incarcerated youth as a Community Youth Organizer. Le Blanc earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work at California State University, Long Beach.