Department of Psychology Professor Paul Kwon studies resilience in the LGBTQ+ community. In honor of Pride Month, which takes place each year in June, Kwon provides some insight into how LGBTQ+ individuals can improve their resilience to challenges.
How do you define resilience?
There are many ways to define resilience, but I would define resilience as our ability to weather life’s challenges. An analogy would be the role of levees in a flood-prone area. Levees that are stronger and better designed are more resilient to challenging weather events. A resilient person can better handle life’s challenges, just as a resilient levee can protect cities from weather challenges.
How does legislation impact LGBTQ+ individuals’ resilience?
A couple decades ago, when gay marriage was a major policy debate, researchers found rates of mental disorders rose significantly in states that adopted bans on same-sex marriage. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals were more likely to have mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and alcohol use disorders after these bans were enacted. In comparison, there was no increase in mental disorders found in this population in states that did not enact such bans.
Another study found that as states adopted pro-same-sex marriage legislation, suicides among high school adolescents dropped in the years to follow.
Someone may wonder, “Well, if a person is really resilient, wouldn’t they be able to overcome legislation that discriminates against them?” Returning to our analogy of a levee system, every levee has a breaking point. LGBTQ+ people faces the same stressors that cisgender/heterosexual people encounter – financial problems, conflicts with friends, breakups with romantic partners, academic difficulties, and so on. Experiences with discrimination is additional stress on top of this. For many people, when a state passes laws to discriminate against them, it’s just too much to handle.
A rash of anti-transgender bills have been passed or have been proposed in a number of states recently. The effects are devastating. For instance, families are moving out of certain states out of a fear that their children will be taken away from them or will be harmed. And generally, there is this awful message of “there is something wrong with you” every time one of these bills gets discussed. We know from past research that even the process of having a pending vote on anti-transgender legislation such as bathroom bills increases anxiety and depression among LGBTQ+ people. These bills take a toll even if they are ultimately defeated.
It is up to society to maximize resilience among its citizens and to nurture their potential. Just as continued climate change will result in more and more levee failures, passing more and more discriminatory laws will kill more and more people. Compared to 1.6% of the general population, 40% of transgender and nonbinary individuals have attempted suicide in their lifetime. We also know that stress and discrimination also costs lives through another mechanism: it harms people’s physical health. The American Heart Association recently released a scientific statement that transgender and gender diverse people have higher levels of heart disease and that this is linked to discrimination. In my opinion, for us as a society to increase discrimination against this vulnerable group is entirely immoral and will be judged by historians as a deeply shameful time in our country.
What are ways that people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community can boost their resilience?
A supportive social network is essential. For those in the LGBTQ+ community who have been rejected by their families of origin, being able to construct a family of choice is essential to survive and then thrive. Here in Reno, getting connected to community agencies like Our Center, and welcoming spaces like The Radical Cat bookstore next door, can be very helpful in becoming part of a supportive community.
This next suggestion is less intuitive, but it’s important to not push your emotions away. Research shows that writing about our most difficult emotions is less stressful than trying to avoid our emotions. Keeping a journal, or a memoir, or using art to express emotions can be very therapeutic. And seeing a therapist can be therapeutic, but look for one that is affirming of LGBTQ+ people and uses techniques that are based on science. You should definitely ask when you’re vetting a new therapist.
If you’re writing a memoir about your life (and we all are in some form, even it’s just in our mind), become determined to write a memoir in which you overcome the cruelty that you’ve encountered in your life and triumph in a spectacular manner.
If you are having thoughts of suicide: