A new study about the health of LGBT Nebraskans (PDF) found that the stigma in such conservative areas has a very negative impact on physical and mental health. In fact, 50 percent of respondents had serious suicidal thoughts in their lives, but not just as young people. According to researcher Dr. Jay Irwin, the numbers are high across the entire population:
IRWIN: We already know suicide attempts among LGBT youth are nearly three times the rate of their heterosexual counterparts, but having nearly 50 percent of respondents indicate serious thoughts of suicide is quite high, even in light of other studies of LGBT populations. [...] We found people who had seriously considered suicide in their 20′s, again in their 40′s, and then again in their 60′s.
Transgender individuals were more likely to report suicidal thoughts.
The study also confirmed other impacts of societal stigma, such as increased smoking rates. In Nebraska, 26 percent of the LGBT population smokes compared to 20 percent of the overall population. Still, close to 75 percent of respondents considered their health to be excellent or very good.
Another researcher on the study, Dr. Christopher Fisher, points out that research on the LGBT community in the Midwest is lacking and some unique issues might be at play there:
What little research has happened with LGBT populations has occurred predominately in the big cities and on the coasts. However, the issues facing LGBT in New York or Los Angeles are different than in the rural Midwest. Isolation, stigma, and lack of social outlets are experiences that continue to need to be addressed. We hope this report will give community organizations needed information to help improve the health and well-being of the people they serve.
Proven again by this study is the fact that the ability to be “out” is crucial for engaging in healthy behaviors. Just as coming out helps people feel happier and be more productive at work, it also reduces the internalized stigma that leads to many health risks. Only by combating anti-LGBT stigma in society can the community’s health disparities ever be overcome.