Saturday was World Mental Health Day, and Sunday was National Coming Out Day. According to many local LGBTQ advocates, there’s a close link between the two, and Utah State University’s clinical psychology department is trying to fill the void for services in the area.
According to Jen Barney, a fourth-year doctoral candidate with the clinical psychology department at USU, coming out can be a positive or negative experience for an individual.
“It can be a really amazing identity development process for someone who has a safe space to explore and be open and authentic about who they are without fear that they’re going to be rejected by their family or their peers,” she said.
Though they no longer live in the area, Taylor Stringham said even before the experience of being outed by someone they trusted while in high school, being queer in Logan meant living with anxiety and depression.
“Feeling isolated from the community and hated for your identity is a really awful experience,” Stringham said. “At the time I came out, there wasn’t a well-established LGBT+ community in Logan. I felt very alone. … There were a few other queer people around my age in my high school, but we made a poor support system without any adults to help us build a space where we felt safe.”
Creating a safe space
When he moved to Cache County, where mental health services are already spread thin, Tyler Lefevor noticed there weren’t services catering to LGBTQ needs, so he helped start a program at USU’s Sorenson Legacy Foundation Center for Clinical Excellence to create a safe space for those struggling: the Sexual and Gender Minority Support Service line.
“Having mental health services, tailored for you, takes away that extra layer of stress in your space,” he said. “It’s important that a therapist who works with an LGBTQ person understands some of that cultural baggage and some of the identity development or processes they go through, like the difficulty of coming out, and why that can be stressful, and more or less successful ways to navigate that, and maybe in navigating relationships with faith.”
Navigating faith can be especially tricky in Utah, where the religious history of the state can be at odds with changing mindsets. This is an area of research Lefevor is locally ingrained in.
“I am starting a longitudinal study of LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and former Latter-day Saints,” he said. “We’re recruiting people for a 10-year, longitudinal study, to understand how religion, sexuality and gender shift over time, and then the implications that has for their mental health.”
Sean Weeks, a fourth-year doctorate student in clinical psychology at USU under Lefevor, is originally from Kentucky and said it was an adjustment when he came to Utah and worked on a project at Brigham Young University.
“I really had to learn a lot about what that culture means and how it affects the LGBTQ community,” he said. “It’s in politics a lot here, you know. They only removed the ‘no homo promo’ on schools three years ago, and so there’s still carryover from that. So, in schools, there’s a lot of misinformation in education, which is unfortunate.”
Prior to when Gov. Gary Herbert signed State Bill 196 into law in 2017 — thus removing the prohibition of “advocacy for homosexuality” discussions from schools — things were even worse, said Stringham, who graduated from Mountain Crest High School in 2016.
“I know there were some teachers that saw me struggling and tried hard to be there for me, but the school district really limited how much support they could actually offer me without endangering their livelihood,” they said. “As far as support from peers, there was very little. If they weren’t outright hostile and threatening, my peers were always uncomfortable around me.”
The Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition made a goal to reduce suicide rates in Utah by 10% by 2021, with the ultimate goal of zero suicides in Utah, and advocates say increased access to mental health services is the answer to that goal.
Weeks was worried the majority of his clients would have experiences similar to Stringham’s, but he said even more often, clients have internalized self-negativity due to the region’s predominant religion’s stance on homosexuality.
“In terms of substance abuse, suicidality, depression and eating disorders — pretty much you name it, people who are sexual and gender minorities are worse off,” he said.
While Utah became the 19th state to ban the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy in January, it does not extend to religious clergy or officials, which is another thing advocates are looking to address.
“It’s not even that (conversion therapy) doesn’t work,” Weeks said. “It’s that beyond the fact that it doesn’t work, it creates significant harm to the individual who is looking to convert. And it’s just really unfortunate, because people are going there thinking that they can change.”
According to the Pan American Health Organization — a regional division of the World Health Organization — conversion therapy has proven “impossible to demonstrate changes in subjects’ sexual orientation. … In addition the study found that the intention to change sexual orientation was linked to depression, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of guilt and shame, and even suicidal ideation and behaviors.”
In fact, Weeks said of his clients, it’s more rare for an LGBTQ individual to not experience suicide ideation, self-harming or have attempted suicide in the past.
Since 2018, suicide has been the leading cause of death in youth aged 10-17 years old and the second-leading for those 18-45. According to the Utah Department of Health, roughly 40% of teens who died by suicide were deemed “religious,” and “the majority (were) affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
Lefevor hopes the addition of an LGBTQ-focused clinic in Logan will help address the need in the area because “communication barriers” are a leading factor for suicide ideation. Though the services at the clinic are housed at USU’s Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, they are open to all members of the public — adults and youth, with parental permission — regardless of whether they are students at the university.
More information on the clinic is available at https://scce.usu.edu/services/psychology, but those interested in Sexual and Gender Minority Support Services can simply state as much when they call into the main line at (435) 797-3401.
More information on joining Lefevor’s longitudinal study is available at www.4optionssurvey.com.
For anyone else struggling, help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)273-TALK (8255), for talk or text, or online.
The Bear River Mental Health’s Stabilization and Mobile Response crisis team for youth and counselors at Bear River Mental Health are also available 24/7 if an immediate need rises. The phone number is (833) SAFEFAM (723-3326).
Citizens Against Physical and Sexual Abuse also has a crisis line and support team for those who have survived sexual assault or domestic violence. The 24/7 line is (435)753-2500.