Gay Men's Unique Mental Health Issues Need Unique Solutions

Research shows that they have much higher rates of depression than heterosexual men.
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Nov. 19th was International Men's Day, when organizations across Canada took action to raise awareness of men's mental health and well-being issues. This includes high rates of substance abuse, depression and suicide.

In fact, more than 75 per cent of completed suicides in Canada are made by men, and men still tend to use mental health services at a significantly lower rate than women. Evidence suggests that certain male demographics have particularly high rates of mental health issues. One of these is gay men.

Indeed, a number of research studies indicate that gay men have much higher rates of depression than heterosexual men, with some research showing rates that are three times higher. Likewise, a Canadian study showed that around 50 per cent of gay men had experienced suicidal ideation. This is more than six times higher than the reported rates for heterosexual men.

Underlying causes

What is causing these mental health issues? There are a number of common themes across studies.

Firstly, studies show that gay men who experience rejection, harassment and victimization have a higher risk of mental health issues. This can affect self-worth and sense of physical and psychological safety, often leading to self-isolation, loneliness and low self-esteem.

Secondly, gay men with serious physical health issues have higher rates of mental health problems. Gay men with HIV/AIDS have a particularly high rate of suicide in the first year after diagnosis, an important issue as around 40,000 gay Canadian men are HIV-positive.

Thirdly, gay men who are conflicted about their sexual identity appear to have higher rates of mental health issues. This may arise due to conflict with family, as well as with other values held dear by the individual (for example, religious faith), leading to confusion and self-doubt.

Hope and recovery

Much research indicates that involvement in meaningful and purposeful activity is a hedge against mental health issues in gay and straight people alike. This includes gainful employment, social participation and community involvement. This is encapsulated in the inspiring video below about the life and work of Bill Bissett, one of Canada's most celebrated (and openly gay) poets.

More specifically, researchers have examined the effect of same-sex marriage laws on the mental health of gay men. Numerous studies show that married gay men suffer fewer mental health issues than unmarried gay men.

Interestingly, one American study indicated a significant decrease in suicidal behaviour and mental health consults by gay men after the legalization of same-sex marriage. But one Swedish study showed less of an effect, indicating that men in a same-sex marriage had a higher risk of suicide than women in a same-sex marriage, indicating particular challenges for gay men.

The unique experience of gay men is often obscured as policy and practice rarely treats this demographic as a separate community with specific challenges and issues.

Instead, gay men are often lumped together with other disparate groups to make up the amorphous "LGBTQ community." Using this wider umbrella term dilutes the experience of gay men per se, and a more granular approach may go some way to better understanding underlying issues.

November is a chance to take stock of outstanding issues faced by men in today's society. Gay men face a set of specific challenges which need addressing. Let's not forget that.

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