Still work to do on making mental health services accessible for LGBTIQA+ people in distress

Still work to do on making mental health services accessible for LGBTIQA+ people in distress

Barriers to accessing potentially life-saving support persist, according to new research into suicidality in the LGBTIQA+ community.

An RMIT-led study with Switchboard, Roses in the Ocean and University of Sydney interviewed members of the LGBTQA+SB community to understand their lived experiences of suicidal thoughts and behaviours, and uncover factors that protect people at these times of distress.

The acronym SB in LGBTIQA+SB stands for sistergirl and brotherboy, acknowledging the trans women and trans men of First Nations gender-diverse people within some, but not all, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Project lead and Dean of RMIT’s School of Global, Urban Social Studies, Professor Katherine Johnson, said despite LGBTIQA+ Australians being 20 times more likely to have considered suicide, there remained a lack of research into the types of support needed, especially for people with intersecting identities, including First Nations people, people of colour, and people with disabilities.

Many participants in the study said their suicidal distress started at an early age with fluctuating levels of intensity.  

Alarmingly, it also found concealing this distress, or not accessing support, was common among younger people. 

It echoes a previous study revealing almost 2/3 of LGBTIQA+ people in Australia aged 14 to 21 did not access professional support after experiencing some form of suicidal distress.

Barriers to accessing support

Johnson said people in LGBTIQA+ communities often embodied several marginalised identities, which can create unique and complex systems of disadvantage and discrimination.

“Understanding the context in which LGBTIQA+ people attempt to live affirmatively must be the starting point for effective policy and services,” she said.

As well as fear of discrimination in terms of sexuality, gender and racism, barriers to accessing support included a lack of knowledge of where to find it, cost and distrust of the health system due to negative medical experiences.  

Concerns around confidentiality were also complex, especially for First Nations people, people of colour and religious participants in remote and rural communities. 

Some participants were uncomfortable seeking support services where they were too easily identifiable. 

A student visits a support worker to discuss mental health. Many participants in the study said their suicidal distress started at an early age with fluctuating levels of intensity. Credit: Adobe Stock

Understanding help-seeking behaviour 

Johnson said seeking support was a challenge overall, but her research found help-seeking behaviour often changed over time, with people becoming more adept at finding ways to manage their suicidal distress.

While gender identity and sexuality played a part, participants said it was fears of social and cultural isolation and rejection associated with homophobia, transphobia and racism that were the main contributing factors in their distress.

“Living with suicidal distress is exhausting. It can limit people’s ability to form and maintain social connections and significantly disrupt daily life, which may lead to other psychosocial factors like homelessness and unemployment,” said Johnson. 

“That’s why we need targeted early interventions in order to reduce suicidality over an LGBTIQA+SB person’s lifetime.”

Johnson said the lack of support services in remote and rural areas can also be isolating as it forced people to travel to more urban areas to access support. 

“Developing referral pathways, reducing out-of-pocket expenses and ensuring LGBTIQA+SB affirming services are available, particularly in regional areas, will facilitate access to safer and more effective supports,” she said.

Family relationships, friendships and supportive social spaces were significant sources of acceptance and affirmation for LGBTIQA+ people. However, Johnson said they could also be drivers of distress and shame, shaping how people reach out for help.  

“We found family support was vital, but it was not always available or positive,” she said. 

“Meanwhile, participants of colour often sought support from friends due to family being overseas.”

Johnson said employing a diverse representation of LGBTIQA+SB peer workers, including First Nations, people of colour and people with disabilities, within mainstream and queer-friendly services can help improve perceptions of safety and confidentiality. 

“Rainbows are nice, but people like to connect with others who understand the nuances of their identity, circumstances, background and culture," she said.

“With appropriate and effective support, LGBTIQA+SB people can, and do, find ways of living with suicidal distress.”

An illustration of two people with a hand holding the pride flag in the background. The Torres Strait Island, Aborginal and Pride flags are also on the left side. Johnson said seeking support is a challenge overall, but people become more adept at finding ways to manage their suicidal distress over time. Artwork credit: Jacq Moon

More work needs to be done

Johnson said this research was just the beginning of a bigger call for more attention to the lived experiences of suicidality in diverse LGBTIQA+SB communities.

RMIT’s Social Change Enabling Impact Platform has funded the translation of Johnson’s research into training materials. Switchboard will help fund the roll-out of the training across Victoria. 

Switchboard CEO Joe Ball said he would like to see national investment to introduce the training around the country. 

“The potential impact of our suicide prevention training cannot be overstated — this has the power to change lives, and we welcome strong partnerships to do this work together,” Ball said.

“LGBTIQA+SB people, no matter who they are or where they live, deserve tailored support.

“The time is well overdue for more sophisticated approaches to supporting our communities. We are not one-dimensional people — we live intersectional lives and deserve support from services that acknowledge and strengthen this.”

Co-author and University of Sydney and University of New South Wales Adjunct Professor Vanessa Lee-Ah Mat said the research was laying the foundations in understanding queer First Nations suicidal behaviours from their lived experiences.  

“Putting culture first has been a guiding hand,” said Lee-Ah Mat, a Yupungathi and Meriam woman. 

“The insight drawn from this research has enabled us to begin to understand the many experiences that lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviours in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTIQA+SB people.”

Co-author and Switchboard Suicide Prevention Manager Anna Bernasochi said the training to be rolled out was the first of its kind to use insights from lived experiences of LGBTQA+SB people. 

“By integrating insights from these lived experiences, services will be more equipped to help LGBTIQA+SB people live through suicidal distress. Completing our training is an excellent first step,” said Bernasochi. 

“Understanding LGBTQA+SB suicidal behaviour and improving support: insight from intersectional lived experience” was prepared for and funded by Suicide Prevention Australia (DOI: 

Katherine Johnson, Nicholas Hill, Vanessa Lee-Ah Mat, Anna Bernasochi and Martina McGrath are co-authors.


Story: Shu Shu Zheng


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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.