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Despite significant progress for the rights of LGBTQIA people in recent decades, suicide rates in the community remain alarmingly high – and advocates warn that the religious freedom debate is only fuelling the crisis. By Jill Stark.

Queer lives at risk

Ingrid Zhang was a volunteer co-ordinator at Switchboard Victoria.
Credit: SUPPLIED

There are two things we know to be true about Ingrid Zhang. That she was loved – both by her biological family and the queer friends and colleagues she referred to as her “chosen family” – and that she saved lives.

As a volunteer co-ordinator at Switchboard Victoria, Zhang fielded countless calls from those who rang the LGBTQIA peer support service in crisis.

A warm, loving and gentle presence with a deep capacity for empathy, she was seldom seen without a smile.

She would often tell her boss, Switchboard chief executive Joe Ball, “I can’t believe I get paid to be here.”

When Zhang called in sick one April morning last year, it seemed out of character. In five years as a volunteer and as a member of staff, she had rarely missed a day’s work.

The news was delivered the next day by her shell-shocked father. The 25-year-old was dead, and she had died by suicide.

“That somebody could be so loved, have so much access to support and awareness of suicide prevention and still make that decision – it was just absolutely devastating,” says Joe Ball.

Three months later, the organisation was hit with another blow.

Mitch Dowling, a caring, seemingly self-assured university student, due to start a work placement with Switchboard, failed to turn up for his first day.

He had taken his own life, one week before his 21st birthday.

The deaths led to a period of profound introspection, both for Ball and for Switchboard as a whole.

The organisation was quick to overhaul its internal processes and bolster mental health support for staff and volunteers.

But Ball is haunted by the knowledge that the loss of these two young queer lives is just the tip of a crisis that seems impossibly vast in scale. And according to Ball, it’s a crisis being exacerbated by a deeply damaging public debate about the rights of LGBTQIA people.

“Suicide is often a consequence of hate, and what we’re seeing with the postal survey and now the religious freedom act is we’re actually doing things that are making the conditions worse for people,” says Ball.

“We may have marriage equality and people aren’t being locked up for being gay anymore but it hasn’t reversed our suicide rates. Many people still feel like they don’t belong in this world.”

Figures from the National LGBTI Health Alliance paint an alarming picture – young LGBTQIA people aged 16 to 27 are five times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers.

Transgender Australians aged 18 or over are nearly 11 times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime.

According to those working at the coalface, these statistics probably underestimate the scale of the problem.

“Since the AIDS crisis of the ’80s,” says Ball, “there was a feeling within the community that we need to stop talking about ourselves as sick and dying and have more positive representation, which was important, but there has been a reluctance to talk about suicide because people were worried it shows some sort of deficit in us as LGBTI people.”

The true toll is made harder to gauge by the fact that gender identity and sexuality are not recorded by the coroner, unless evidence is given that directly links these to someone’s death.

Last month, at the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, Ro Allen, the gender and sexuality commissioner, explained the period immediately before and after coming out is a very high-risk time.

Many people were not out to their families and it was not uncommon for parents to destroy suicide notes rather than accept that their child identified as LGBTQIA, Allen told the commission.

Allen said collecting data on gender and sexuality, not only at coronial inquests but also across all aspects of a person’s life, would help measure the scale of the problem and better understand the impact of “minority stress”.

“One of the reasons our mental health statistics are so high is not because of our gender or sexuality but it’s the stigma and discrimination that we experience daily,” Allen tells The Saturday Paper.

“It’s living with constant anxiety about being outed, being discriminated against, being yelled at from a car window, being misgendered.”

Allen believes this has been heightened by the “tsunami of hate” first unleashed by the same-sex marriage postal survey and now playing out in the religious freedom debate.

Switchboard Victoria saw a spike in demand from LGBTQIA callers in distress after the furious debate ignited by the sacking of rugby union star Israel Folau. Folau was sacked in April for a social media post claiming gay people would go to hell, and the debate persisted during the federal election campaign.

At the same time, volunteers were managing a flood of abusive calls to the organisation.

“I worry that we will lose more people through this religious freedom debate because we’re not strong at the moment,” says Allen. “We are a very resilient community but we’re still mopping up from the last tsunami – we’re not ready to deal with another one.”

Ingrid Zhang was one of many volunteers answering the Switchboard phones before and after the postal survey. Calls to the organisation jumped by 40 per cent over this period, a figure mirrored by other mental health services in Victoria and New South Wales.

A study of almost 10,000 people by The Australia Institute and the National LGBTI Health Alliance found that about 80 per cent of LGBTQIA participants found the postal survey period considerably or extremely stressful.

The number of people experiencing depression, anxiety and stress increased by more than a third after the announcement of a public vote.

Last month, concerned that history may be repeating itself, Switchboard released a self-care guide to surviving the religious freedom debate.

It came as more than 50 LGBTQIA and ally organisations signed a statement urging the federal government to ensure any changes to freedom of religions laws did not sanction new forms of discrimination.

Anna Brown, chief executive of Equality Australia, who led the push, says the debate over the religious discrimination bill was a perfect example of how LGBTQIA people become targets for hate.

“Public debate is important and welcome, but this bill is being used as a platform for the ultra-conservative religious right to attack us,” she says.

In October, Brown will meet with Christine Morgan, the prime minister’s newly appointed national suicide prevention adviser, to discuss making LGBTQIA mental health a priority.

Announcing Morgan’s appointment in July, Scott Morrison called suicide a “curse on our country” and vowed to move towards a goal of zero suicides, naming Indigenous communities, veterans, middle-aged men and young people as vulnerable populations.

He made no mention of the LGBTQIA community.

The omission troubles Joe Ball, who is now pushing for a standalone national suicide prevention body, similar to The Trevor Project in the United States, to address the unique needs of LGBTQIA Australians.

Victoria’s royal commission on mental health has heard that 71 per cent of LGBTQIA people don’t use mainstream crisis services for fear of discrimination or a lack of sensitivity.

Many felt that health services were so heteronormative they often had to teach their doctor about their specific needs.

Frank Quinlan, chief executive of Mental Health Australia, the peak body representing the mental health sector, acknowledges that while some mainstream organisations service the LGBTQIA community well, others have rated poorly.

“While there is that vast discrepancy in the quality of the services available it does make sense for us to provide an avenue for people that addresses their needs and is culturally safe, sensitive and informed,” says Quinlan.

“There’s an extremely high need in these communities and government should be funding services accordingly. We don’t ration our cancer services or diabetes services – we make them available according to the need that presents.”

However, Nieves Murray, head of Suicide Prevention Australia, warns that “splintering” the prevention message would be counterproductive. “The more that we remain together and unified, the better an outcome we’ll get in relation to reforms at a government level.”

Murray says she is confident after conversations with Christine Morgan that no community will be excluded from her suicide prevention strategy.

For Ball, bringing public attention to LGBTQIA suicide has become their life’s work.

“When I spoke at Ingrid’s funeral there were many people in the room who had lost other people. That’s what it means to live and work in the LGBTI community. Behind these statistics there are real people. We have held their hands, we have worked beside them, sat beside them, danced beside them,” Ball says.

“I think of Ingrid when I think of the future we need to build. A world where queer people feel there is a future for them, free of bullying, discrimination and harassment – things that make people feel vulnerable to suicide. That’s what we all deserve.”

Lifeline 13 11 14; Switchboard 1800 184 527

Disclosure: The author works as an external contractor for the mental health service Beyond Blue.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Queer lives at risk". Subscribe here.

Jill Stark
is a Melbourne-based journalist and the author of the mental-health memoirs When You’re Not OK and Happy Never After.