Native LGBTQ people struggle disproportionately from mental health and substance abuse issues

Native LGBTQ people struggle disproportionately from mental health and substance abuse issues
Photo: AP Photo/Eric Gay

A new report from the Williams Institute has found American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) LGBTQ adults suffer disproportionately from mental health and substance abuse issues compared to AIAN adults who are not LGBTQ.

The study found that 35% of AIAN adults who are LGBTQ have been diagnosed with depression, compared to 23% of non-LGBTQ AIAN adults.

Related: Queer adults at much higher risk of suicide 

The study also compared LGBTQ adults who identify only as AIAN and LGBTQ adults who are multiracial. It found the latter group to suffer from depression at higher rates.

43% of AIAN-multiracial adults reported being diagnosed with depression, compared to 25% of non-LGBTQ adults.

AIAN-multiracial LGBTQ adults also reported significantly higher rates of both unemployment and food insecurity when compared to non-LGBTQ adults.

Overall, AIAN LGBTQ adults also reported higher rates of high-risk health behaviors like alcohol abuse.

AIAN LGBTQ women were especially likely to abuse alcohol, with 16% of AIAN-only and 8% of AIAN-multiracial women saying they engage in heavy drinking. In comparison, only 3% of AIAN adults who are not LGBTQ reported the same.

AIAN LGBTQ people were more likely to say they have have health issues than their non-LGBTQ counterparts.

“The complex picture of health and economic vulnerabilities of AIAN LGBT people is likely a product of factors shared with all Indigenous peoples, such as the impact of historical trauma, and those shared across LGBT people, such as anti-LGBT stigma,” lead author Bianca D.M. Wilson, told NBC News.

Somáh Haaland, the child of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and media coordinator for the Pueblo Action Alliance, talked about why the above challenges might be more prevalent for LGBTQ Native people.

“The unique intersection of being Native and queer can feel incredibly isolating, both in a displaced urban setting and in our own communities,” they said, adding that their friends have voiced feelings of having to choose “one marginalized identity over the other because existing as both simultaneously feels like it is not physically safe or feasible for their mental health.”

Haaland, who has clinical depression, spoke about the racism LGBTQ AIAN people experience in white queer spaces and the exclusion many experience in their Native communities if they are out.

“Being queer and being Indigenous are both beautiful identities to carry that are sacred when they intersect,” they said. “But we often must fight twice as hard just to show that we are worthy of living and thriving.”

While tribes differ in their level of LGBTQ acceptance, the anti-LGBTQ sentiment that remains prevalent in many tribes was caused by colonization and Christianization.

“Pre-contact, the Native people that we now label as queer and trans were often revered and had sacred roles in their communities,”  Haaland explained. “It was not until colonialism that the European perspective of gender and sexuality was forced upon our people as a part of the bigger effort to control us and assimilate us into whiteness.”

Sharon Day, executive director of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, told NBC News that change could be coming on reservations.

The Williams Institute study found that 57% of LGBTQ AIAN-multiracial adults are under age 35, as are 46% of AIAN-only LGBTQ adults. Day said these young people are increasingly carving out space for themselves in their Native communities.

“In the last couple of decades, there are more queer [Native] people who are staying in their home communities,” Day said.

“Some of that has to do with changing attitudes. I think more and more we see people returning to the cultural values system of our past, and those values are to be kind and loving, to be courageous and honest, to be respectful, to seek wisdom and to be generous.”

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