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Uncle Frank, COVID, and the LGBTQ+ Mental Health Crisis

Uncle Frank, COVID, and the LGBTQ+ Mental Health Crisis


We have to start grappling with the damage 2020 has wrought.

The recently released movie Uncle Frank gutted me. It's the story of Frank Bledsoe, the cool uncle to his teenage niece, Beth, who Frank encourages to find a world bigger than the repressed society where they grew up in rural South Carolina in the '60s and early '70s. Closeted to his family and battling addiction, Frank is an NYU professor who lives with his boyfriend and a cosmopolitan set of friends, a world apart from the one in which he grew up. A trip home for a funeral leads to intense family trauma, searing memories of a tragic young romance cut short, and ultimately, reconciliation, and redemption. It will hit a little too close to home for millions of LGBTQ+ people and their families this holiday season, many without the reconciliation or redemption chapter in their stories to make for a happy ending.

The trauma experienced by so many in the LGBTQ+ community is real, visceral, and has lasting impacts. Most of my other LGBTQ+ friends have or know some version of that story, and it's nothing compared to the violent brutality and murder routinely inflicted on transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) people of color in our country. The wellbeing, health, and safety of LGBTQ+ people is, to put it mildly, not great.

The discrimination LGBTQ+ people face simply going about our daily lives affects our overall wellbeing. According to Cornell University's What We Know Project, there are a whopping 245 national studies which show "robust evidence" that anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination harms our overall health, including mental health. In fact, data show that our health suffers even if we're not directly exposed to discrimination; the mere presence of discrimination, stigma, and prejudice harms us and "contributes to minority stress," the studies prove.

And as coronavirus ravages our nation, the problem is only getting worse.

A recent University of California at San Francisco study reports that rates of anxiety and depression are spiking across the LGBTQ+ community due to coronavirus, especially among those who haven't previously suffered such symptoms. Harvard University explains some of the additional stress factors burdening LGBTQ+ people, among them: LGBTQ+ people are more likely to suffer loss of work and income because many of us have jobs that aren't conducive to working from home, such as service industry and nightlife jobs as well as retail; trans and GNC people are especially experiencing reduced access to medical care, including essential gender-affirming care such as hormone treatments; and LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans and GNC people, are less likely to seek care when they need it due to past poor experiences with medical providers. Moreover, LGBTQ+ people, who are more likely to suffer from addiction, may struggle with maintaining or seeking recovery under the increased isolation COVID-19 has imposed.

LGBTQ+ youth are suffering more, too. With schools and universities shuttered, LGBTQ+ young people who have unaccepting families are now stuck at home without support, isolated from friends and school resources such as GSAs and on-campus community centers. For those whose parents have rejected them altogether, they're left with nowhere to go, rendered homeless, or otherwise forced to find shelter. Others are shoved back into the closet, left no choice but to hide who they are from an unaccepting family, a devastating blow to their mental health and overall wellbeing.

While LGBTQ+ nonprofit organizations like PFLAG and The Trevor Project provide ways to stay connected to a network of support and critical resources for LGBTQ+ youth in crisis, it's up to President-elect Joe Biden and members of Congress to recognize the LGBTQ+ community's urgent needs during this time.

As a mental health advocate and founder of one of the nation's leading nonprofits championing improved mental health policy, I'm confident President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris get it. They both have long records as strong allies to our community and have made common sense proposals that will improve Americans' access to care and mental wellbeing. It's now time to put that into action by funding access to mental health and addiction treatment, permanently expanding insurance coverage for telehealth services like therapy, and making sure every member of our community has the opportunity to live and thrive free from trauma and violence.

We should accept nothing less.

Bill Smith is the founder of Inseparable, a leading mental health advocacy organization. For an additional list of resources, visit the Harvard Health Blog here or LGBTQ Funders here. If you are a young person in crisis, feeling suicidal, or in need of a safe and judgment-free place to talk, call the TrevorLifeline now at 1-866-488-7386 or text "Start" to 678-678.

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