LGBTQIA+ and the political moment: how therapists can help
How can therapists help their LGBTQIA+ clients cope with pain and anxiety during times of political uncertainty? Learn more here.
In 2020, 68% of Americans said that the election was a major source of stress, up significantly from 52% in 2016. That anxiety is exacerbated in the LGBTQIA+ community.
While eight in 10 Americans believe LGBTQIA+ peoples’ civil rights should be protected, President Donald Trump’s appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court leaves uncertainty surrounding the protections of those in the LGBTQIA+ community.
“The reality of the situation is that you have individuals who are now fighting for their ability to live their lives. They simply want to exist and that is now being questioned on a consistent basis,” says Erica Rodriguez, a mental health therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and professor of Cultural Family Psychology at Pacific Oaks College. “When you work with the LGBTQIA+ community, one of the things that you have to take into consideration is that for them, every time they meet or interact with someone new, they’re not sure if that person will accept them. That anxiety is heightened because people who aren’t accepting are now being empowered to act on those feelings by people in positions of power.”
The anxiety of those whose gender identity or sexual orientation may be under fire comes not just from strangers who might judge or harass them, but from friends or family who turn a blind eye to LGBTQIA+ issues when they vote. “It’s difficult because it can be people who you thought were your friends or maybe even your close family voting against your basic human rights because they don’t agree with a tax policy or something in general, not realizing that it’s a total package,” Rodriguez explains. “A lot of times people see politics the same way they see religion: as a buffet where you can grab what you want and leave what you don’t. But in fact, it’s an entire meal and you take all of it or nothing. Those choices can really hurt people.”
Statistics show that anxiety is high for everyone in recent years, whether because of political polarization or the COVID-19 pandemic. But the LGBTQIA+ community is dealing with the same challenges at a higher intensity. 2019 research shows that even before the pandemic, LGBT individuals were much more likely to worry about paying for (71% versus 54%) or accessing (73% versus 51%) health care services compared to non-LGBT individuals. Another recent study found that after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential race, LGBT+ Americans felt significantly higher stress “pertaining to sexual orientation rumination, daily experiences of harassment/discrimination, [and] more symptoms of depression and anxiety post-election.”
As COVID-19 limits our social bubbles and increases the risk of social interactions, Rodriguez notes that LGBTQIA+ people are being robbed of the few places and communities where they feel safe. “One of the things that has always been amazing about the LGBTQIA+ community is the way they build a chosen family—but now because of the pandemic, because of the lockdown, they are literally separated from their chosen family who would give them the emotional support to deal with daily stressors,” she notes. “Additionally, LGBTQIA+ individuals, especially trans people of color, already struggled with walking into a space safely. Now that anxiety has doubled with the additional layer of stress because of the pandemic.”
So as the American LGBTQIA+ community faces heightened anxiety and stress, how can mental health professionals help? Rodriguez says they can begin by treating the whole person holistically: “Say you have an individual who is a trans-identified woman of color: They’re facing issues from three different sides. They identify as someone of color, they identify as a trans individual, and they also identify as a female, and we need to be able to understand and speak to all of these aspects. At Pacific Oaks, we believe you can’t separate one aspect of a person from the other—you have to understand intersectionality and the role it plays in a person’s life.”
Treating the whole person also means helping LGBTQIA+ clients cope with physical manifestations of mental struggles.
“It’s very normal, when you’re in an environment where you feel that your existence is threatened on a consistent basis, to start experiencing psychosomatic symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, and body aches,” says Rodriguez. “They may get sick more easily than they have in the past due to the additional stress that their body is feeling.”
LGBTQIA+ individuals may also struggle with the stereotypes they face, finding it more difficult to speak up when they need help or stand up for themselves when they face negative interactions. Therapists and mental professionals can provide much-needed perspective and support for LGBTQIA+ people who are struggling to ask for help or admit they feel unsafe or threatened.
“Stereotypes and biases make it difficult for an LGBTQIA+ person to voice valid concerns, because critics can call it complaining or demanding a safe space,” Rodriguez explains. “It can make them nervous to speak up even when they should.”
Perhaps most importantly, therapists and mental health professionals can take actions to make it clear that LGBTQIA+ individuals are welcome in their practices as early in the connection as possible.
“Even before you see your first LGBTQIA+ client, we need to work on being accepting. We need to learn the right language. We need to offer visual clues like something as simple as pronouns in an email. We need to be proactive and affirmative rather than reactive,” Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez says anyone who wants to work with and support the LGBTQIA+ community via therapy should consider Pacific Oaks’ M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy: LGBTQIA+ Specialization program. “When you come to Pacific Oaks, you are coming here because you choose to be of service to a community that needs it, to individuals who need that support. You’re coming at it from a space of knowing that there are many things that you have to learn, that you have to actually humble yourself to become an ally to a community that you may not necessarily be a part of. And I think Pacific Oaks does a great job of that.”
Learn more about Pacific Oaks College
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