The kids are not alright

Connor Parissis interviews specialist psychiatrist Dr Stephen Koder

The correlation between queer-identification and mental health problems is unjustifiably high. Beyond Blue report 36.2 per cent of transgender and 24.4 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians experiencing major depressive episodes compared to the 6.8 per cent of the general population. Queer-identifying Australians are twice as likely to have high levels of psychological distress compared to heterosexual peers, with Australian LGBTI+ people having the highest rates of suicide, or thoughts of suicide, of any population in Australia.

While bigoted conservatives, politicians and health professionals call for causation between queer-identification and mental health problems, psychiatrist Dr Stephen Koder stresses, “we do not see sexual diversity as a psychiatric disorder,” and stated that his transgender patients “have absolutely no mental health problems. All I had to do was verify their condition of being, and to support and facilitate their transition.” Dr Koder, one of few psychiatrists in Sydney specialising in transgender identities, agreed for an interview regarding the correlation between queer-identification and mental health problems.

Dr Koder discussed how school environments allow for this correlation to flourish. He acknowledged the “abundant research that show schools that show proactive inclusiveness and support of queer students, show decreased mental health problems and much lower distress levels and dissociated levels than those at schools who do not offer that kind of validation.” This brought into conversation the attack on the controversial Safe Schools program which Dr Koder called a “politically motivated set of circumstances by the federal government to withdraw support.” He stated, “In my clinical work the attack is a tragedy. I was happy to encourage people to get their schools to consider inviting Safe Schools to educate their staff and create policies, but that doesn’t seem to be so available anymore. I’m disappointed that our state government hasn’t stepped in, as the Victorian government did. We can only hope public pressure and the weight of scientific evidence will be brought to the politicians concerned if they have any real regard for the wellbeing of the young.”

Issues such as the Safe Schools program and marriage equality have “unfortunately become politicised.” With the constant bombardment of these issues in the media, it creates misconceptions and overall uncomfortableness for the queer community, allowing for feelings of inferiority and the opinions of extremists to thrive.

Whilst the Orlando shootings were a horrific attack on the queer community, Koder “picked up an outpour of compassion, public demonstrations and support… and when things like that happen to any community, one positive thing that could happen is compassion for the group of people.” Events like this can make people feel extremely vulnerable, intensifying mental health problems and it is in the best interest of the community and those not in it to offer support and compassion, which is exactly what happened.

To decrease the correlation between queer-identification and mental health problems, a push towards the decrease of heteronormativity and cisnormativity in society would ultimately lead to further equality and acceptance, and eventually decrease mental health problems. Dr Koder suggests, “The battle has to be fought on many fronts. Any queer identity should be more normalised and humanised, and this is slowly happening through media in various ways,” including creating role models for queer youth and their parents. “There are clearly political and legislative issues that also need to be addressed by society. Speaking personally, Koder stated, “In my field, there is great scope for legislative change enabling for transgender people to transition fully, to be more legally recognized, and not have to jump through so many hoops.”

Whilst being extremely difficult to transition, it simultaneously invalidates the sex/ gender distinction and enforces biological determinism. Koder addressed the unnecessary expenses involved in hormone therapy, which “acts as an incentive to access that sort of treatment in other ways that are outside of the law, which can be dangerous.” Ultimately this leads to societal ostracising for those who don’t ‘pass,’ or fit into the hegemonic gender norms, leading to fewer employment opportunities, making hormone treatments and sex affirmation procedures further unaffordable, and intensifying mental health conditions.

Overall, Koder potentially suggests, “it is possible that as a group there may be greater vulnerability to mild level issues of mental health that could be correlated with sexual orientation. We’re talking biology here. We can’t say we are born with sexuality but not mental health issues. There could be some correlations above and beyond these social factors but only time will tell, and we will only know once we address these social factors, which is in our power.”