Providing Compassionate Behavioral Health Care for the LGBTQIA+ Community

Unity Center is a place of sanctuary and acceptance.

June 17, 2022

Over the decades, society’s views on mental health, gender, and sexual identity have evolved, with more positive movement toward acceptance and understanding, but evidence shows there’s still much to be done to further eliminate stigma and barriers to behavioral health care.

Those who identify as LGBTQIA+ statistically show higher numbers of mental health struggles, especially in younger ages. This is due to a number of factors, including social stigma and a lack of acceptance. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this with isolation and dwindling support resources.

What the Numbers Reveal

A 2022 national survey by The Trevor Project, which solicited input from more than 40,000 youth identifying as LGBTQIA+ between the ages of 13 to 24 across the United States, found that 45% said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, while 14% had attempted suicide. Both of those statistics were higher for those between the ages of 13 and 17. Sixty percent of those surveyed said they wanted mental health care in the past year but were unable to access it.

Other findings revealed that 73% reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety and 58% reported symptoms of depression. Studies have also repeatedly shown that youth who identify as LGBTQIA+ experience higher rates of houselessness as they face unaccepting families and communities, heightening their trauma and increasing their likelihood to experience depression and anxiety.

For adults, those numbers are similar in scope. According to Mental Health America, 39% of those identifying at LGBTQIA+ reported having a mental illness in the past year. They reported experiencing more acts of violence, fewer opportunities for employment and less access to care or a fear of seeking out health care.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness points to several factors that link LGBTQIA+ to higher rates of mental illness, including fear of coming out, rejection, trauma, substance use, houselessness, and lack of mental health care.

Caring for LGBTQIA+ Patients at Unity Center

At Unity Center for Behavioral Health, staff create an environment of safety, empathy and understanding so that adolescents and adults alike feel heard, seen and accepted.

Recently, Unity Center was named a leader in LGBTQIA+ care, as measured by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Healthcare Equity Index for 2022.

“We work with a lot of LGBTQIA+ kids – in fact, a large percentage at Unity Center identify as LGBTQIA+,” said Katie Lowry Woods, an adolescent clinical social worker. “Young people in general are much more fluid about these things. I learn so much working with them.”

Lowry Woods said staff and patients talk about issues openly and always use preferred pronouns and names. At times, the adolescents at Unity Center haven’t come out to their parents yet, and that’s something staff takes very seriously.

“We make plans with them on how to handle that. Every patient looks at this differently. Some kids aren’t really safe going to their parents about their identity. We navigate that with them.”

She works to create a space where families can talk openly, in a safe environment. Unity Center cares for LGBTQIA+ adolescents from all over Oregon and Washington, and many of them come from rural communities, where acceptance isn’t always as easy to find.

“Rural kids feel isolated. They come to Unity and realize there’s a bigger world out there, where they meet people that feel and look like them.”

At times, her job involves a lot of parental education. Often, parents are just finding out for the first time that their child identifies at LGBTQIA+.

“Slow down, take time to gather your thoughts and think about how to respond,” Lowry Woods recommended. “Tell your children you love them. You don’t need to have a solution. Just slow down and listen.”

Children and young adults are growing up in a different world, where gender and sexual identity are far more fluid. “It’s the adults who need to play catch-up,” she said.

Adolescents and adults alike at Unity Center are provided with the care and supplies they need to feel comfortable and present themselves in their preferred way.

“Suddenly, they’re able to express themselves in the way they prefer to present their gender identity, and when they can’t do that, it causes great distress and exacerbates their gender dysmorphia. It increases depression and anxiety and leads to isolation.”

Raffi Serafino, a clinical social worker who works with adults at Unity Center, identifies as queer himself, and feels that at times helps him make a connection to those who also identify at LGBTQIA+.

“At times, patients are more ready to disclose their own information when I share that I am a gay man. Working with this group really stretches me as a clinician. It’s one queer person to another and it’s special. It’s a safe environment for them.”

Serafino says he sees so many adults come to Unity Center with significant trauma in their lives, and often it’s compounded by shame and the stigma of being queer, he said.

“I see a prevalence of certain illnesses among queer people, and often that includes a diagnosis of trauma disorder. We also often see a high concentration of personality disorders, which I feel needs to be better understood with respect to social factors, such as oppression and community trauma.”

LGBTQIA+ people are frequently marginalized, Serafino said. It’s important people be heard and that their diversity be honored.

“Within the queer community there is so much diversity. When we’re feeling uncomfortable, ask questions and be curious, inviting and open. Get involved in your community and advocate for people.”

LGBTQIA+ Resources

If you or someone you know who identifies as LGBTQIA+ needs resources, such as behavioral health or health care, housing, employment, peer support, family counseling, drug addiction support, or other needs, consider these resources:

– Elizabeth Baker, [email protected]