I had the great pleasure of attending this event yesterday, and this is an attempt to collect some thoughts together on the day, more of an overview than a strict word for word report.
Firstly I would like to say how the organisers seem to have understood that accessibility is more than a buzz word to stick on a website. The conference was free, which removes a huge barrier for so many, especially those who face multiple oppressions. It was not based in London, as so many of these things are, this is not just the complaint of a parochial Geordie, travel to London, accommodation prices, even eating in London prove to be a huge financial issue for so many. The event was wheelchair accessible. Within the plenary space the toilets were gender neutral, achieved with the low-cost solution of sticking a piece of paper over the usual gendered signs, and no, the sky did not fall in, and I did not see gangs of cis women afraid to go pee.
There was not, sadly, signing, or as far as I could see handouts available in alternative formats for those with visual impairments, dyslexia or dyspraxia. However generally it was as good as any event I have attended and better than many which claim to be accessible.
The Plenary Sessions
The conference was split into two main parts, in the morning speeches and presentations from a variety of people, in the afternoon workshops. It is always difficult I think at an event like this, especially when it was the first of its kind, to know where to pitch things. Will the attendees be experts in mental health, in the LGBT communities? Will they be attending because of an interest in suicide prevention, an intersection of MH and LGBT issues, lived experience or simply to learn about a subject they are ignorant of? From talking to other attendees there was a wide cross-section of knowledge and experience, and motivations for attending.
The morning sessions addressed this multiplicity very well, and it was very heartening to see how important lived experience seemed to be to all of the speakers. I think I was not the only person who did not want to stop applauding when a very young man, only 17, spoke about his experiences of homophobia and suicide. That this was a part of the plenary session, deemed as important as academics and chief executives speaks I think to one of the overall impressions of the day. This was not experts talking about service users, but a conversation between many different groups, with lived experience being prized as much as titles.
Of course sometimes we wear different hats in the same space, I was attending as a counsellor, a member of the LGBT community and someone who has suffered from mental health issues. It is so important at such events to understand that it must never be a them and us approach, that an individual is more than one label. This brings me to one of the things that was not fully, addressed, the fact that there can be a tendency to pathologize members of the LGBT communities, and particularly members of the trans community. Whilst stigma and discrimination most certainly impact on mental health, so do professionals who try to treat you as one thing, rather than a whole person. Or as I put it to another attendee, a gay person can still lose their mother, a trans person can still be suffering job related stress, these issues can have nothing to do with their gender or sexuality.
This idea was touched on by members of the Pride in Mind project, are they lgbt people with mental health problems or people with mental health problems who are lgbt? It would I think have been good to have had more open discussion of this, and the role of professionals who demand that service users fit nice neat boxes in order to get the help and support they need. The excellent speaker from Gendered Intelligence also touched on this, amongst other issues which I wish we had had more time to explore. This is of course one of the drawbacks of a single day to cover so much, but is perhaps something to consider for the future.
Diversity within LGBT
With over 25 years of contact, on a variety of levels, with LGBT events what was also exceptionally positive is that this was not a LGbt event. I am sure some of you know what I mean. The erasure of bi and trans issues is something that many more qualified than I have spoken of. In a conference on suicide it was vital that the exceptionally high suicide rates for trans people be front and center of the discussion, and this is exactly what happened. The exceptionally good presentation by Dr Elizabeth McDermott was something I wish had continued for far longer, and from the responses of some around me, very shocking to those unaware of the issue.
This perhaps is one of the problems with such an event. I would have loved a longer presentation by Dr McDermott, as one of the leading researchers in this field, however for some the shocking suicide figures were brand new and they were learning for the first time of tragedies like the death of Leehla Alcorn. No conference can be all things to all people but perhaps there should have been an opportunity for those who were not new to such issues to explore things in more depth. It is hard to be a conference that explains to people stigma exists and presents some of the leading research on the results of that stigma in the same short period of time.
Perhaps this was a place where the Q&As could have been presented more as a discussion space, or even different sets of Q&As could have been facilitated rather than a hierarchical “Do you have anything to ask the panelists format”. Of course there are restrictions of time and space, but it may be something worth considering for the future.
There was also little attention paid to the specific issues bi people face, with reportedly higher rates of suicide, less likely to be out, and more likely to suffer from mental health problems. We must always be careful not to lump together LGB and one homogenous group.
Which brings me to the future. There seemed to be a genuine push from many that this be a launchpad for more, a beginning of a conversation, and direct action, to do more on LGBT issues and mental health. One of the overriding take aways from the day for me was that most people who are suicidal do not reach out for support, and that the best support for LGBT people, and people with mental health issues, and for LGBT people with mental health issues, is often peer support. Currently there are some excellent projects across the country, such as mind out, out of the blue, and Mesmac. However living as I do in a rural area, and hearing from people how such personal contact has kept them alive I can see we have a real need for change in Northumberland. I did some digging last night, there is one LGBT group in the whole of west Northumberland, no youth group, no specific support for gender variant people of any age. I left yesterday motivated to do something about this, and will be contacting some of the people I spoke to about practical steps to address this lack of support. I remember what it was like to be a LGBT teenager who felt isolated, and I can admit at this distance, suicidal. Twenty five years later is it not good enough that nothing has changed. The exciting thing is that everyone I spoke to yesterday also seemed to be saying, this is not good enough, and there must be change.