How organisations can support the mental health of LGBTQ+ people

Charlotte Townsend

By Dan Cornell, Charlotte Townsend

Mental ill-health is a growing concern across society, and something leaders in all organisations need to support all their people with. But LGBTQ+ people often face particular challenges that make them more likely to struggle with poor mental health. It’s therefore vital for leaders to ensure their mental health and wellbeing strategies proactively support LGBTQ+ people.

The personal consequences of poor mental health are dire. In the UK, suicide kills more than three times as many people as road traffic accidents, according to suicide prevention charity Samaritans. It also puts enormous strain on businesses and the economy – the total cost of mental ill-health in England was £119bn in 2019/20, according to the Centre for Mental Health. That’s 6.5 per cent of GDP.

But while poor mental health affects us all to varying degrees through our lives, research by LGBT rights charity, Stonewall, found that LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience mental health struggles, with over half (52 per cent) having suffered from depression in the previous 12 months. Meanwhile, research in the US found that students who identify as LGBTQ+ are more than three times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual counterparts.

The reasons those who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to suffer from mental health issues are complicated, but stigma and discrimination, social isolation, rejection and difficulties in coming out all play their part. And the issues are compounded by the fact that LGBTQ+ people are less likely to seek help because of real and perceived bias in healthcare systems. Stonewall’s research found one in seven avoid seeking healthcare for fear of discrimination.

With so much of our time spent at work, leaders have a real opportunity to confront these challenges and support LGBTQ+ people’s mental health.

How can leaders support mental health at work? 

Mental health issues are just as important as physical ones, so require equal emergency. Few would shy away from inquiring about a colleague’s leg if they were limping, so why would we avoid talking about mental health if we see signs of someone struggling? In our experience, creating an environment where open conversations about mental health can happen requires five things.

1.     Prioritise inclusion

If your LGBTQ+ staff don’t feel safe to openly express who they are every day, it’s unlikely they’ll feel comfortable talking about their mental health. And research has shown the fatiguing effects of keeping ‘secrets’ or, in the case of LGBTQ+ people, concealing authentic identities they don’t feel safe to disclose.

Building an inclusive culture must therefore form part of any mental health and wellbeing strategy. Such a culture starts from the top, with leaders modelling inclusive behaviour. To do this, they should focus on building five dimensions in their teams: Valued, Open, Independent, Connected and Empowered.

2.     Ensure representation in your mental health first aiders

Mental health first aid training is increasingly common in large organisations – they’re using it to upskill line managers and create teams of in-house confidants ready to support their colleagues. And many are reporting significant benefits, with staff absences falling as a result of better conversations around mental health.

There are numerous organisations, such as Mental Health First Aid and St John Ambulance, that offer mental health first aid training. And it’s something all organisations should look to offer their people. But it’s vital you ensure your first aiders are representative of the diversity of your workforce to minimise any potential for bias. While the training will provide tools and techniques for facilitating conversations, shared experiences will ensure the first aider can truly listen, understand and be empathetic.

3.     Challenge the stigma

It was only in 1990 that the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder. With even the scientific community officially holding such views so recently, it’s no surprise LGBTQ+ people still face a stigma. Stonewall’s research found that five per cent have been encouraged to seek psychological treatment to ‘fix’ their identity. Add to this the widespread stigma around mental ill-health, which many still view as a ‘weakness’, and you have a recipe for fear around seeking support.

The best way to challenge such stigmas is through conversation. By regularly and openly talking about mental ill-health and identity, we can show it’s okay to be open. And that will create routes to support.

To create authentic conversations, open the floor to everyone in the business, and create a space for personal storytelling. To support your LGBTQ+ community, it will be important to encourage them to share their stories, particularly when they come from leaders. You can foster such conversations through regular workshops and talks hosted by an LGBTQ+ network, and by setting up digital channels, such as an internal email address, for those who are less comfortable with face-to-face conversations.

4.     Communicate reassurance 

Being open about mental ill-health is challenging. Nobody wants to be singled out, to create obstacles for themselves at work, or admit to (what they may perceive as) a weakness. So, leaders must reassure their people that they can be open about their struggles without it impacting their life at work. This starts with leaders modelling open and inclusive behaviours, but it also includes sharing the policies and protections that are in place to prevent discrimination. For example, do your people know that employment laws in many countries, including the UK and Europe, cover mental ill-health?

5.     Challenge providers

If your company provides health insurance or an employee assistance programme, ask your providers about their policies for supporting LGBTQ+ staff. Do they provide access to therapists and counsellors who understand the LGBTQ+ experience, for example? It’s important not to make assumptions as, while all mental health practitioners are highly skilled, a deeper understanding of LGBTQ+ experiences makes support much more effective.

Supporting the mental health of LGBTQ+ people is vital to build inclusive and diverse organisations

By prioritising inclusion, training a representative team of mental health first aiders, fostering open conversations about mental health, reassuring people it’s okay to talk and partnering with the right support providers, leaders can support their LGBTQ+ people in improving and managing their mental health.

About the authors

Dan Cornell Co-Chair of PA Pride Network
Charlotte Townsend
Charlotte Townsend Defence and security expert

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