Depression – A Queer & Trans* Perspective

This week, Curious takes a look at depression from two unique perspectives – that of a young gay man, Lasitha S’Korala, who shares his personal struggle with depression and Dr Mathijs Lucassen, a lecturer and research fellow at the University of Auckland, who shares his insights from a study he was involved in around using an interactive role-playing computer program which employed cognitive behavioural therapy to help young queer and trans* people.

Research tells us that in New Zealand, queer and trans* young people are 5 times more likely to attempt or commit suicide than their heterosexual peers. The statistics are alarming, and our struggles as a country to have open and honest discussions about suicide and depression are helping no one.

Properly understanding depression can be the first step towards helping someone recover, or dealing with it yourself. This humour infused Hyperbole and a Half comic and this simplistic video using a black dog as a metaphor for depression (below) are good resources to begin the discovery.

The two perspectives offered below on the issue of depression within our queer and trans* young people aim to shed light both on the personal experience of someone with depression, and what studies and research show can be done about it.

A Personal Story:

“My name’s Lasitha but almost everyone calls me Laz. My grandma once told me it means I have a ‘beautiful mind’… I’m still unsure as to how worthy I am of such a title… 

I live in Auckland and I work as a senior sales manager for Barkers.

Having been born into an extremely conservative/ religious family, the tale of me growing up ‘GAY’, I’m sure isn’t too different to many others. Feelings of fear, confusion, shame and denial were very much a part of my teenage life; thus I often experienced them in that very same order. Today I consider myself out and proud, but the path to such self-actualisation was by no means straightforward. 

I often thought that my coming out defined me. I felt that it somehow completed my state of ‘truly being myself’. However, I still found myself struggling to answer that infamous post-coming-out question, “When did you know you were Gay?”… 

Over the years, I too like many others have tried to articulate the perfect response to this question; until one day it became rhetorical and I found myself asking back,  “When did you know you were straight? It took me a while to realize that who I am as a person remains independent to my sexuality, and that what defines me is how I choose to live my life. My battle with depression has been both my deepest struggle and my greatest triumph. It has been the test that defined my own strength to accept life for what it is and how to survive it. 

I was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder when I was 18. My best mate David committed suicide during my first year of Uni. I was almost 800 miles away from him, but I remember feeling so helpless and the sense of guilt that took over made me feel like I was standing there in front of him handing him the shotgun he used to blow his head.

My ability to process what was once rational suddenly seemed inaccessible.”

Being diagnosed with depression feels like the first time you get dumped. The stigma that is so ignorantly associated with it offsets a sense of shame like the scarlet letter that is stuck to your forehead. This sense of denial is much like being back in the closet. They say that being diagnosed means you have taken your first step towards getting help. Yet one of the toughest hurdles of battling depression is that it makes you feel isolated and unsusceptible to seek help.

That deep dark place of isolation was often where it all unravelled.

Depression is like the weed that invades your herb garden. It grows around and over unforgivingly and its routes are often hard to find. The catalysts that triggered my depression were as hard to predict, as they were to control.

My ability to process what was once rational suddenly seemed inaccessible. I remember feeling constantly at odds with channelling my self-esteem. The fear of isolation makes you question even the most unwavering of aspects in your life. This sense of insecurity made me consistently test the boundaries of trust and loyalty with people, often of those who were closest to me. The relentless need for reassurance that followed often felt impossible to satisfy as the helplessness of those whom I tested manifested into the rejections I feared the most.

“The first real step I took towards taking control of my depression was to understand what was happening to me.”

 At first coping with this spiralling set of emotions seemed impossible. I remember describing it as having “tunnel vision”. Once triggered, depression spins your emotions into a helpless whirlwind. Logic and reason seldom stand a chance as anxiety elicits itself as a ‘physical pain’ like a needle that passes through your chest and blood vessels and all you can grasp in that moment in time is how to end it.

In the beginning seeking help was a cry for attention. The therapy seemed generic and the pills seemed to make it worst. They talk to you about exercise, being active, give you breathing techniques which all seem pointless at first. 

The first real step I took towards taking control of my depression was to understand what was happening to me. To be told what I should and need to do to over come depression without knowing what it was, felt like getting the tools to build something I didn’t have the blueprints for.

Understanding depression and how it operates gave me the ability place logic over the emotion as medically identifiable symptoms of the disease that is depression. The amplified sense anxiety that isolates you becomes a lot more bearable as you begin to accept depression as a medical condition and not as an insurmountable black hole.

In the midst of my battle with depression, controlling my emotions was the hardest challenge. At its peak, depression attacks the core of your self-worth. The emotional reactions derived from the lack of reciprocation I so unfeasibly demanded from those around me were like destructive weapons that permanently burnt some bridges.

Finding the strength to be committed to getting better is the first real step towards overcoming depression. Giving up often felt like the only option, but I learnt that attempting to harm myself as a way to end the pain only brought me back to square one.

In time, the anger and frustration I felt for failing in my attempts forced me to accept that there is no quick fix. As cliché as it may seem at first, beating the demons of depression does make you believe that ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’. I have learnt that being strong does not mean that you are immune from getting hurt. The reality of life is such that its ups and downs are both unruly and volatile. Thus your true strength is measured on how you choose to react to circumstances.  

Tips

The best tip I can give to anyone struggling with depression is to take the time to learn and understand what depression is. To be able to distinguish this disease as not just a state of mind but a medical condition that affects the way you feel helps you battle it.

Depression is a disease that makes you emotionally vulnerable. As impossible as it may feel try to remind yourself that those around you may not always be able to understand what you feel or give you the responses that you need. Your true strength comes from being able to understand that the power to make you happy should never be dependant solely on the actions of someone else.

Ask for help, it is a far better option than a harmful attempt that cries out for attention. Be committed to getting better even though the tools may seem pointless at first. Choose one goal first and focus your energy to achieve that. Attempting to do too much at first often made me question if they really worked. Depression, like many other diseases, will take time to heal. You have the power to control your anxiety if you keep reminding yourself that you have the power to control it and eventually you will find the strength to find your self-worth again.

Researching The Solutions

Dr Mathijs Lucassen is a Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Department of Psychological Medicine, School of Medicine, at the University of Auckland. He and his research team have been targeting the issue of queer and trans* depression among youth, and attempting to research ways in which treatment can be most effectively delivered.

Based on the knowledge that young people turn to digital resources like the Internet for help during their depression, Dr Lucassen and his team developed ‘Rainbow SPARX’, a queer and trans* themed interactive fantasy role-playing program where participants create a character and must then navigate them through situations, using cognitive behaviour therapy techniques.

For more information about the study, you can read the research publication here.

In the research paper, it says that many of today’s young people prefer self-help, internet based information or support rather than professional help. Why do you think it is? 

Today’s young people are sometimes referred to as ‘digital natives’, they have grown up with the Internet and it is part of their every-day lives, therefore it isn’t that surprising that they would want to obtain a range of services, including psychological support from the net.

How well do you think this information on the Internet helps provide healthy solutions/care?

I think the quality of information and support provided via the Internet is variable.  In the area of e-therapy some of the formally evaluated programs are available free online and others aren’t.  The various e-therapies need to be tested (to see if young people like them and that they are effective), but we also need to work at making them easily available and accessible (which can be hard to do).

Why do you think there is a trend for queer and trans* people reluctant to get help for their depression?

I think it can be hard for queer and trans* people to get help for any health related issue, because we live in environments that do not value sexual minority and gender diverse people.  As a result many will find it hard to get health care that meets their needs.  It is even more challenging when trying to obtain help for a psychological issue, like depression, because there is still a stigma associated with mental ill-health.

What would you say is the most striking result of your research into depression with queer and trans* youth?

It is probably  not that surprising that there are increased rates of depression in our communities, given the hostility and negativity that many queer  and trans* young people face.  But what is striking is that as a group queer and trans* youth are generous and altruistic (giving), for example they are more likely to give their time working as volunteers.

How well does popular culture act as e-therapy for queer and trans* youth – in terms of representation on TV, movies or books?

I wouldn’t count popular culture as e-therapy, but I think that books, TV and movies can have a profound impact (in a positive way or in a negative way).  I think anything that provides people with a means of support (so they know they are not alone) and can instill a message of hope is therapeutic, perhaps not in a traditional ‘therapy’ sense, but I think that queer and trans* people are innovative and creative – and we often use a range of tools to get the most out of life.

Where to next for rainbow SPARX? Will it be available for public use? 

Me and the team that developed SPARX (and Rainbow SPARX) are working on that…It’s tricky because there was some funding for the development and evaluation of Rainbow SPARX, but no funding per se for distribution.  But I feel optimist that we will get there!

If young people would like support now, because they are feeling stressed or low, then they can call 0800 OUTLINE (6885463), OUTLINE is a free-phone telephone counselling service for LGBT people.

 

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