Ask the right questions to help LGBT people thrive

This February sees the 10th anniversary of LGBT History Month in the UK. It aims to promote equality, raise awareness of prejudices, and celebrate the lives and achievements of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) community.

I like to think of myself as quite a pragmatic kind of gal, so a few years ago I decided to move to a beautiful part of rural north-west England to retrain as a mental health nurse. Life was on the up. I immersed myself in rural life and my studies, and looked forward to the challenges along the way. My sexuality had never been an issue, and having ‘come out’ many moons ago, it was something I felt I did not need to repeat.

Having previously worked in a largish city, I had not experienced a great deal of discrimination at being ‘out’ to my colleagues at work. There was always some banter, which goes along with working in a close team, but I was fortunate enough to be in a position to be open about my sexuality.

Like most students, I was looking forward to my placements. I was pleased when my first few were in ward settings, as I had previous experience in these environments. Unfortunately, my previous experiences had not prepared me for the homophobic jokes and remarks that were a regular occurrence on these placements.

Sadly, these remarks were sometimes in reference to clients. The atmosphere was tense, and I am sad to say that at the time I did not challenge this. I quickly became isolated from the team as I felt I could not be open about my sexuality, and I felt uncomfortable within the environment.

The rest of my placements, I am glad to say, were the complete opposite. But my previous experiences made me think twice about being open about my sexuality, and I continued to feel isolated from the team. Working in a rural part of the world where access to good mental health services is a challenge irrespective of sexuality, I struggled with the question of how we as professionals can provide a service that is based on equality when we cannot treat our staff with the same respect.

It was a great mentor in my second year of training that helped me through this struggle, simply by asking about my sexual orientation. This enabled me to feel more at ease within the team, and gave me the confidence to challenge others.

Studies have shown that members of the LGBT community have higher levels of poor mental health than the general population, largely due to homophobic discrimination and social isolation, which are all too common in rural settings.

Limited access to mental health services can also mean limited practitioner understanding of what works, and what is needed for people who have mental health problems and also happen to be LGBT.

My experiences have taught me that, as practitioners, we need to have a greater awareness of the mental health needs of LGBT people. Routine inclusion of sexual orientation in data collection would help change practice, and increase our understanding of people who are already in a difficult place and do not need to face unnecessary prejudice.

About the author

Jenn Rawles is a community mental health nurse in Cumbria