Exploring Intersections: Race, Sexuality & Mental Health

Analyzing the overlap of racial-ethnic and LGBTQ-related stressors and coping mechanisms

different people of color with hands on a table

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It’s common among minorities, whether it be racial, ethnic, sexuality or identity-related, to endure several kinds of discrimination and stressors that require different means of coping.

One thing not often addressed is how these overlap for those who are both a person of color and in the LGBTQ community.

The article, Coping with LGBT and Racial-Ethnic-Related Stressors: A Mixed-Methods Study of LGBT Youth of Color by Laura E Kuper and Brett R. Coleman of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Brian S. Mustanski of Northwestern University, reviews these stressors and coping strategies.

The outcomes for mental health

Racial-ethnic and LGBT stressors are both linked to a variety of negative mental health outcomes, the study says. Identifying protective resources such as coping strategies has been less common, but is equally urgent.

Stressors related to one’s race and/or ethnicity can range from micro stressors, such as experiences in day-to-day life that may accumulate stress over time, institutional distress and larger related life events. Something else that may also contribute to stressors is a collective experience, meaning it has an effect on a person or group even if it didn’t directly happen to them.

There were several themes along racial-ethnic related stressors; including the preparation for future bias or harassment, promotion of mistrust, ignore or not be affected by experiences, avoid conflict or confrontation, importance of hard work and perseverance, prove others wrong, promotion of agency, self-efficacy and individuality, and knowledge and pride in one’s heritage.

However, “One of the most common approach-oriented strategies was behaviorally focused and reinforces the importance of hard work and perseverance,” the study reads. “Several participants said they were told they would have to work harder than others, while a handful specifically discussed the importance of education.”

With regard to the preparation for future bias or harassment, one study participant who is gay and black said, “White people don’t want you to make it. White people are holding you back. White people are taking over black neighborhoods and trying to send us to the suburbs.”

For promotion of mistrust, a bisexual black female said, “My parents are always telling me to never be trusting of white people."

My mom uses her experience at work not only to let me know white people are not trustworthy, but also to let me know that I have to work hard in this world if I want to make it.” In other instances, POC youth are taught to retort, “If they disrespect you, do it back to them,” a bisexual Hispanic female participant said.

How people deal with stressors

Kuper and company also outline some common approach-based or avoidance-based coping strategies for racial-ethnic related stressors, including:

  • Self-assertion (approach) – involves the behavioral aspect of approach coping strategies by actively engaging with the source of discrimination in the moment.

  • Contextualized agentic (approach) – youths are encouraged to think positively about themselves and not let the discrimination diminish their self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy.

  • Behavioral approach strategies are more future oriented.

  • Active avoidance (avoidance) – encouraging youths to avoid behaviors that might confirm discriminatory beliefs or to behave in ways that contradict those beliefs

  • Submission (avoidance) – communicates to youth a belief that they cannot avoid discrimination and should not react to it

However, the research also notes that negative social attitudes and the potential internalization of them are also a source of stress. The strategy of accepting, not responding and not talking about the experience is associated with a greater risk of psychiatric disorder in a sample of racial-ethnic minorities or LGBT folks.

“These studies suggest that the approach-avoidance framework may be applicable to coping with both racism-related stressors and LGBT-related stressors,” the study reads.

Racial-ethnic minorities have heard several things as a result of their status: being told that teachers would expect them to perform badly due to their race or ethnicity, they would have to work extra hard at school and work and some people would treat them wrong because of their race or ethnicity.

“For those reporting having been told to never forget that they are a minority living in a white person’s world, follow-up tests revealed that self-assertion was more frequent than the active avoidance and submissive strategies and that the submissive strategy was more common than active avoidance,” the study reads.

94% of both LGBTQ youth and adults have experienced some form of LGBTQ-related name-calling, threats, physical or sexual violence.

“Such experiences have been linked to increased sexual risk taking and substance use as well as decreased mental health. Another study of bisexual African American adult men identified more specific coping strategies related to altering one’s degree of visibility to avoid conflict,” which varies if whether they were in an LGBTQ-friendly setting or not.

And despite commonalities between both racial-ethnic and LGBTQ identity development processes, youth may not be actively drawing on their experiences in one identity domain to apply to the other.

Findings of this study seemed to be that self-assertion coping strategies were communicated more frequently than both active avoidance and submissive strategies.

Understanding the data

For LGBTQ people of color, a number of participants cited their parents’ religious beliefs as a source of their negative reaction. Other parents responded by asking questions or learning to accept or ignore their kid’s orientation.

Within this though, some participants specifically explained that the difficulties improved over time. Several others indicated they were forced to move out as a result of their sexual orientation.

“Given that instances of disclosure of one’s sexual orientation are fairly discrete events, stressors associated with this process appear similar to racism-related life events,” the study finds.

“These LGBT-related coping strategies were more ambiguous or generalized, less targeted at overcoming a specific bias and more in-the-moment oriented,” as compared to the list above for racial-ethnic related stressors.

“Both sets of coping strategies are implicated across a variety of settings, from coping with day-to-day interpersonal stressors to larger societal beliefs.”


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