Winston Churchill suffered from depression. He called it his Black Dog. The gay community is plagued by this same hound.
I had a very special friend. We’d met in our first year at school and even though we lost touch for a few years after high school, we re-established contact and remained friends. He had a hard time at school and at home. As the younger of two brothers, he always felt that his parents loved and spoilt his brother more. His brother was the blue-eyed demigod who excelled at rugby and at getting the girls. My friend wasn’t.
My friend and I grew up together and by some fluke, both of us were gay. It was good to go into adulthood with someone who had similar experiences. When things became too difficult for me at home (my father was abusive), my mum arranged for me to move in with his family and I lived with them till I matriculated. He was the closest I’d ever get to having a sibling.
Sadly, he could never really get his life on track. He had very low self-esteem and felt unloved. Consequently, he always fell for the wrong guys and ended up in dead-end jobs, even though he had good qualifications. Make no mistake, he was a wonderful person, a brilliant cook, had a great sense of humour and would give someone the shirt off his back.
You might have noticed I speak of him in the past tense. That’s because two years ago, he took an overdose of sleeping tablets and ended his life.
We’d known one another for forty-three years.
No-one had known the extent of his suffering. He was one of those people who never let those close to him know what he was really going through. He was prescribed anti-depressants, but they made him feel even more suicidal – a common side effect. But we – his friends and family – didn’t know the extent of his personal suffering.
The death of a friend, especially by suicide, is always a shock. Coming to terms with something like that is never easy because it also points a finger at the people around that person. Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t we see?
LGBT youth are especially at risk, but what I’d never known, was that middle-aged white men are the demographic with the greatest suicide risk. And if they happen to be gay as well, that’s a huge red flag.
Somewhere between thirty and sixty percent of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, or transgender people deal with anxiety and depression at some point in their lives. That rate is 1.5 to 2.5 times higher than that of their straight or gender-conforming counterparts. More than a third won’t seek treatment.
A British survey of gay men found that 50 percent of those who experienced depression had contemplated suicide; 24 percent had already attempted to take their own lives. Of the 600 men who responded to the survey, 70 percent cited low self-esteem as the main reason for their depression, followed by relationship problems, isolation, and not feeling attractive. Twenty-seven percent said homophobic bullying was the main reason for their depression. Living with HIV was the most common reason for feeling suicidal or attempting suicide. Black gay and bisexual men were twice as likely to be depressed and five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their white counterparts.
Medication is no magic bullet. Side effects can be debilitating, and there is concern that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and other antidepressants may increase the risk of suicidal ideation.
Men are raised not to show their feelings. We wear masks and woe betide the man who lets his slip. We aren’t supposed to ask for help or acknowledge it when we are having a hard time. Gay men learn early on to hide even more of themselves. The remotest whiff of weakness can be a source of great trouble, especially when we’re young. So, we suppress, we hide, we pretend. For many LGBT individuals, their mental health issues start at school when they are bullied for being different. Bullying is an evil that lurks not just in schools and on playgrounds. It’s everywhere. In families, in churches, in communities. Teachers, parents and siblings are often just as much a part of the bullying as the classmates. Bullied children carry those feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness with them into adulthood. If they make it that far.
Discussions about mental health should start at school as early as possible. Attention must be paid to gay, lesbian and trans mental health, as much as on heterosexual health.
Gay men can, and do, bully their peers. They pressure their friends to sleep around. They make snide remarks about effeminate men. Bottom shaming is rife. Gay men feel bullied to go to gym to ‘look more manly’. Some even feel they have to force their voices an octave or two lower.
When we think of marriage laws or hate crime prohibitions, we tend to think of them as protections of our rights. What’s less understood is that laws literally affect our health.
One of the most striking studies described the spike in anxiety and depression among gay men in 2004 and 2005, the years when 14 American states passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Gay men in those states showed a 37 percent increase in mood disorders, a 42 percent increase in alcoholism and a 248 percent increase in generalised anxiety disorder.
The most chilling thing about those numbers is that the legal rights of gay people living in those states didn’t materially change. They couldn’t get married in Michigan before the amendment passed, and they couldn’t get married in Michigan after it passed. The laws were symbolic. They were the majority’s way of informing gay people that we weren’t wanted. What’s worse, the rates of anxiety and depression didn’t just jump in the states that passed constitutional amendments. They increased (though less dramatically) among gay people across the entire country. The campaign to make us suffer worked.
There are many tell-tale signs that someone is suffering from depression, such as sudden weight loss or gain. Sufferers might withdraw from social contact, or they may overcompensate by playing the clown. Many sufferers will turn to drink and do drugs and that’s especially so in our community. Depressive people often don’t care about their bodily integrity, and might get involved in situations where risky sex, drugs and alcohol do nothing but add fuel to the fire of this debilitating mental state.
What can you do, if you don’t suffer from depression, or perhaps you do (you’d know the signs better than anyone else), but might suspect one of your friends or a family member does? It’s as simple as being there for them and speaking about it openly, honestly and without judgement. Call them up. Take them out for a coffee. Ask them how they are doing, and I mean how they are really doing. Ask them straight-up if they are considering taking their own lives. It might sound like a big step and it is, but you might just pull someone back from the brink.
If you suffer from depression, phone a friend. Call Lifeline. Seek help. Please.
I can’t turn back the clock and save my friend, but perhaps someone might read this and save someone else. Let’s commit, as a community, to be there for our friends.