February 26, 2024

Minority Stress and the Mental Health of LGBTQIA+ People

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We are living in a moment of heightened anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment in the United States. The IS ACLU currently tracking 491 anti-LGBTQ bills in the U.S. The 2019 report on the rise of hate groups has Southern Poverty Law Center an estimated 43 percent increase in anti-LGBTQIA+ hate groups from the previous year.

What kind of impact can we expect on LGBTQIA+ people (perhaps on ourselves, our loved ones, or our children) in this climate? Is there anything we can do to counteract the effects of this climate? To understand this better, we can turn to the research on minority stress.

Understanding Minority Stress

Minority stress is an idea first articulated by lesbian scholar, Winn Kelley Brooks in 1981. She described minority stress as “a state intervention between sequential predetermined stressors of lesser status than culture, prejudice and t -differentiation as a result, and the impact of these forces on the cognitive structure of the individual, and readjustment or failure of adaptation as a result.”

In other words, when the culture (perspectives and practices of legislators, peers, teachers) sanctions discrimination, it sends a message. It conveys that you are inferior. As well as the impact of discrimination itself (ie not being able to read books about people with your identity), it also affects how you think (cognitive structure) about yourself and others wider base. It forces you to adapt and adjust.

And no matter how “well” you adjust or not, just to adapt places stress on you. This stress affects your physical and psychological well-being.

Many of the cornerstones of the LGBTQIA+ health field are people describing the different sources of minority stress (Meyer, 2003), the different ways people psychologically adjust for better or worse (Hatzenbuehler, 2009; Hatzenbuehler & Pachankis, 2016), and both internal. (ie, pride) and external factors (ie, social support) that protect people from the effects of minority stress (Perrin et al., 2020).

Now Comes the Most Important Question of Any Theory: So What?

Why is this useful to understand? First, it helps LGBTQIA+ people and those who know them understand the nature of their distress. A common discriminatory narrative that persists today is that because LGBTQIA+ people face higher rates of mental health anxiety, it must be a manifestation of illness or mental illness. Minority stress theory debunks this – it suggests that the environment is pathogenic, not the person.

Breaking down how minority stress works can help people who experience it or see it work better recognize it, become more skilled in responding to it, and take care for themselves and each other. In future posts, I’m going to talk in more detail about different types of minority stressors and factors that protect people from minority stress. Stay tuned!

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