A Mental Health Promise for Marriage Equality

"LGBTIQ Australians experience routine discrimination, along with all its negative mental health effects. Marriage equality is squarely a mental health issue," says Frank Quinlan, CEO of Mental Health Australia.

By EJ Cook

For more than a quarter of a century, 10 October has been a day when I reflect on my family and friends and what I could be doing to better support them. On that day 26 years ago, I arrived at school to be told that a close friend had committed suicide the day before. He was gay but didn't feel that he could come out in our conservative community.

At the time, there was not a single example of an openly gay person in our small local community. Later that year, we had our school formal, where every student was required to have a "date" of the opposite gender for the night. A list of girls known to be "not taken" was passed around to the boys who didn't have a date organised so they could take their pick (without the girls knowing about it), and we were told we had to go with the boy that picked us. In an environment that is so strictly heterosexual and inflexible about rules, anyone who didn't fit in was bullied ruthlessly. There was no Safe Schools program, and no youth mental health service or LGBTIQ support groups for young people who were wondering what future they could have if they came out.

It's such a relief to know that people like my friend won't have to endure the hate campaign that could have resulted from a plebiscite on marriage equality. Professor Patrick McGorry, executive director of Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, said that a plebiscite on marriage equality would do massive harm to the mental health of LGBTIQ people.

"LGBTI people have a five times increased risk of suicide and this is caused by discrimination and homophobia," Professor McGorry said last week.

The increased risk of self-harm and suicide is a direct consequence of discrimination and homophobia — and it's one of many reasons the Greens rejected the plebiscite.

“From trolls on social media to homophobic pamphlets being handed out at the footy, we’re already seeing the potential for damage in the marriage equality debate," Senator Janet Rice noted.

It doesn't have to be this way.

We could have marriage equality, and better funding for mental health services.

Senator Rice has called on the Government to have the courage to stand up to its own back bench and allow a free vote in Parliament before the end of this year, without spending $200m on a non-binding plebiscite.

Since 1992, 10 October has been an international day of awareness known as World Mental Health Day.

“World Mental Health Day is an opportune time to foster good mental health, not put it at risk,” Senator Rice said. “The Prime Minister must recognise that government policy must not be detrimental to people’s mental wellbeing."

Raising awareness of mental health issues and reducing stigma for people who seek help is important. Providing people with the services they need, at the right time and in the right way, is something we can do now. With the rate of suicide rising instead of reducing, Professor McGorry says that we need to increase funding for mental health services from the current level of 7 per cent of the health budget.

Veronica Wensing, ACT Greens candidate for Yerrabi in the 15 October election, called on the ALP and Liberals in the ACT to support ACT Greens' plans for $500,000 in additional funding for LGBTIQ services in the ACT if the plebiscite had gone ahead, recognising that there is already an increase in calls to Lifeline about the issue. A dedicated Office for Mental Health and adoption of a suicide prevention target of 50 per cent are also in the ACT Greens plans to help support the mental health of Canberrans.

Like many Greens, I didn't want to see a plebiscite on marriage equality that would give homophobic groups in the community an excuse to promote hate speech and further hurt our LGBTIQ community members. If the Government still wants to spend that $200m this year, let's put that money into mental health services where it is desperately needed right now.

26 years ago, my friend and I talked about who we had crushes on and what we wanted to do with our lives. This year, I honoured my friend's memory by going to a marriage equality rally on the anniversary of his passing.

If you want to take action to support people who are LGBTIQ, please make a #MentalHealthPromise to support marriage equality now. Now that we've confined the plebiscite to the dust bin of history, we have an opportunity to achieve marriage equality in the easiest and quickest way possible. That means working with people from across the political spectrum for a cross-party bill, followed by a free vote in the parliament.

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EJ Cook is a writer in Canberra covering sports, feminism, and health. Her writing has been published in Lip Magazine, On Line Opinion, and on feminist websites.