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Gay community faces mental health challenges

Over the past few years, there has been a growing awareness in our society around the impact of mental health on all sectors of our population.

With a number of recent high-profile cases, including the recent suicide of actor/comedian Robin Williams, people are beginning to realize how serious this issue is and how powerful an impact mental health can have on an individual’s life.

This past week marked Mental Illness Awareness Week and Friday was also recognized worldwide as World Mental Health Day. This reflects this growing recognition of the impact of mental illness in our society.

As a group that has dealt with a history of discrimination, the gay community has been greatly affected by mental health issues and there remains much work to be done in this area.

A Canadian study released last month illustrates how seriously the gay community is impacted by mental health. In the study, which was published in the current issue of Critical Public Health, the authors examined suicide and HIV-related mortality information from Statistics Canada, the Canadian Community Health Survey and other sources from the years 2000 to 2011.

Among the primary findings was that more gay/bisexual men now die of suicide than from HIV-related illnesses; in 2011 — the latest year of data — 157 gay and bisexual men died from suicide compared to 97 who died as a result of HIV-related illnesses.

Overall, it was noted that while HIV-related deaths in Canada have declined steadily since 2000, suicide rates have remained relatively stable, surpassing HIV as a leading cause of death for gay/bisexual men in 2007.

The findings also revealed that gay/bisexual men are four times more likely to have attempted suicide than their straight counterparts.

These findings should raise the alarm to look at how health-related funding needs to be used when targeted at the gay male community. While traditionally HIV was seen as the greatest health threat facing our community — and it remains an important priority still — it is clear that there are other pressures impacting the health of our community which are not being addressed adequately. Most health-related services that are targeted towards the gay male community in our larger urban centres are based around our sexuality and sex with other men; however, it is clear from this study that the issues are much larger than that and that our approach to the health of our community needs to be broadened.

Another critical finding of this study relates to the age group in our community that is most affected by death through suicide. While the study found that suicide attempts are more common during adolescent years, the fatality rate increases with age. In fact, most of the gay men dying from suicide are over the age of 30.

While it is important to make sure that children have access to the services they need — and we are slowly doing a better job of this in Canada — it is clear that we also need to find a way to reach the men who do not come out until they are adults and are less likely to know where and how to access the help they may need. If we fail to acknowledge the mental health needs of our community, this trend of deaths through suicide is likely to continue.

What seems clear to me is that there needs to be more emphasis on mental health all through the year and not just during one week in October. While there are many causes of mental illness, research has shown that minorities that experience discrimination and violence are much more prone to developing these problems, and homophobia is still a major factor in our society for many.

While most health services developed and targeted towards the gay community have related to our physical health, it is time that our mental health needs were also recognized and services developed to address them.

A healthy body and a healthy mind is just as important for gay men as it is for the rest of the members of Canadian society.

  Brian Hodder is a past-chairman of

Newfoundland Gays and Lesbians

for Equality.

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