Protect LGBTQ people from the health risks of social isolation

The ways Donald M. Bell and his Chicago neighbors connect with each other are as simple as they are meaningful.

“We have some rituals that bring certain groups of people together,” said Bell, 73. Sometimes, he is gathering to watch “Jeopardy!” in the community room of their senior condo. Other times they prepare meals for each other, because cooking for one can be difficult, but sharing is easy.

They keep an eye on each other’s pets and accompany each other on visits to the doctor and check up on their neighbors after medical procedures, such as the triple bypass surgery Bell had about six years ago.

Such acts are healthy for anyone at any age. But as residents of the city’s first LGBTQ-friendly residential complex, Bell and its neighbors have had to overcome years of obstacles to build those bonds.

“We try to show each other that we matter, after a lifetime of being told, ‘It doesn’t matter,'” Bell said.

Social connections can help protect health, according to research. But the lack of such connections – social isolation – has been associated with an increased risk of premature death from all causes, according to a 2020 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. And poor social relationships have been associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

“We are social animals,” said Dr. Benji Laniakea, assistant professor in the LGBTQ + clinical program at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California. “We are programmed to be together, to be able to talk to each other, to communicate, to be together”.

But LGBTQ people are more likely to say they are lonely, studies have shown. Several factors put older LGBTQ people at greater risk of isolation, Laniakea said. Many have been shunned by their biological families or have lost friends to AIDS. And social discrimination may have interfered with opportunities to meet a life partner.

According to the LGBTQ + Older Advocacy Organization and SAGE services, older LGBT people are more likely to be single and live alone and less likely to have children than their heterosexual peers, depriving them of a potential source of assistance. And many fear discrimination when they seek help. “Some of our LGBTQ + adults have had to go back into the closet to receive care in a care facility,” Laniakea said.

But social isolation isn’t just a problem for older people. Young people depend on many different support systems – family, schools, clubs, religious organizations – to shape their sense of self-worth, said Jonathan Garcia, an associate professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where he is director of the youth and youth sector. . core of the Halle E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families.

For LGBTQ teens, those would-be safe spaces can become sources of rejection, bullying, and a repeated message that they don’t belong. “So they don’t feel they can get the support they need in the places they need it most,” Garcia said.

Social isolation among LGBTQ youth has been associated with problems such as depression, substance abuse and suicide attempts. Garcia conducted a review on the effects of social isolation and connection in LGBTQ youth that was published in 2019 in Global Public Health. She said the problem can be exacerbated in young people who are also members of marginalized racial or ethnic groups, who may feel isolated from families and religious institutions due to their orientation and excluded from LGBTQ groups when they experience racism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many problems with isolation, Laniakea said. Adults who were just dating were cut off from opportunities to connect with the LGBTQ world, while “for LGBTQ youth, especially those who may not be out with their families, it meant actually going back into the closet.”

LGBTQ people have always had to find ways to build a community, Laniakea said. The best-known historical event of the gay rights era, the Stonewall riot of 1969, concerned the right to assemble without being harassed by the police. And there is a strong tradition of forming a “chosen family” among people who may have been separated from those who raised them. “These connections that are found in someone who truly sees you for who you are can sometimes be as strong as the biological family,” Laniakea said.

Being among welcoming people can be crucial to health, Laniakea said, providing a sympathetic, stress-relieving refuge from personal confrontations and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Stating people can send a message that “you are valid, that your gender and way of life are reasonable, that you are not harming anyone else by existing in a way that is true to yourself.”

Garcia, who conducted a study on a program to build community among LGBTQ Hispanic youth, said society as a whole is responsible for addressing the causes of loneliness.

“Social isolation is not the result of personal failure,” he said. “It is not just an individual experience. It is the result of that systemic oppression. “

Volunteer work can be a way to both meet people and build communities, Garcia and Laniakea suggested. “This in itself allows people to become useful and serve the community,” Garcia said. “Address isolation, but also address some systemic problems.”

People who want to be LGBTQ allies can help by supporting networks of gender and sexuality alliances (formerly known as gay-heterosexual alliances) and things like anti-bullying policies in schools, which have been shown to reduce the harm of social isolation and the risk of attempting suicide.

An ally can also accompany someone to an LGBTQ community group, Laniakea said, “because going anywhere alone can be really daunting for the first time, regardless of your age.”

Bell – who identifies as a gay man or same-sex lover, as well as being a father of two and a third-generation Chicago citizen of African, Indigenous and Scottish-Irish descent – has a community built in the Town Hall Apartments, the LGBTQ-friendly development created in a refurbished police station not far from Wrigley Field.

He realizes that having room for a few dozen people in a city where tens of thousands identify as LGBTQ is far from a solution. But he is grateful.

Residents care for each other, he said, “with the recognition that this is essential.”

Born in 1949, he lived through an era in which “there were no places outside and no safe places. No place like this, “where he and his friends can share a joke without having to explain the context, or just let their guard down and be themselves. A place, he said, where” you’re told you’re important. “

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