When 22-year-old mental health advocate Charlie Cooper stepped off the plane in Albury, Wodonga, to deliver a speech at the Youth Mental Health Forum in August, he had a clear idea of his assignment. He was attempting to break the stigma surrounding mental health in front of a gathering of teenagers who had congregated from surrounding rural areas to listen to Charlie’s lived experiences.
In his presentation, he touched on his encounters with anxiety and depression. He described his angst when backpacking throughout Europe, how he struggled in high school, and his attempts at suppressing innumerable panic attacks and intrusive thoughts during his youth.
He also - fleetingly - brought up his sexuality. “Coming out was the most terrifying conversation I’ve ever had,” Charlie delivered confidently. A layer of apprehension occupied the room. Something had shifted. This, Charlie noticed.
Charlie had dedicated only a smidgen of his time to publicising his struggles as a young, gay man. “Two minutes out of 45,” Charlie laughed. Afterwards, it was this - his admission to being a member of the LGBTQI+ community - that ignited in his audience permission to address the mental health struggles directly tied to their own sexual and gender diversity.
Outside, around 30 teenagers waited patiently to speak to him: four of which came out, then and there.
It was then that Charlie realised that members of the LGBTQI+ community had to be seen and validated in the public health sector; not just as patients. Raising the profile of youth mental health support services in the LGBTQI+ community is one thing, but having people who are intersex, gender diverse and of all sexualities represented in the Australian public health sector is another—and something Charlie wants to apply himself to.
As cited by beyond blue, homosexual and bisexual people are “twice as likely to experience anxiety and three times as likely to experience depression and related disorders” as heterosexual people. The struggles exist entirely in the stressors commonly experienced by those who identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community, such as harassment and abuse. Charlie describes homophobic instances off the top of his head - some, particularly violent - and others passing slurs such as ‘poofter’, that troubled him throughout his adolescence.
However, Charlie is the exception. He was accepted readily by his parents - his mother even popping a bottle of champagne. This acceptance encouraged him to utilise a public platform, such as headspace, and become an advocate in ways other members of the LGBTQI+ community are unable to do, due to the threats it may pose to their interpersonal relationships.
While organisations such as headspace are incredibly inclusive, having members of the LGBTQI+ community represented directly - as seen in Charlie’s role - proves especially empowering.
“There are unique anxieties associated with the social struggles of falling outside of the realms of heteronormativity, and only those who have experienced that can understand them,” Charlie states. With representation, however, youth are heard intimately.
Charlie understands that isolation is a key ingredient to depression and anxiety. “Despite the fact that I came out at 18, I will spend the rest of my life coming out,” Charlie confesses. Due to the lack of queer representation in the public sector, it is deemed a given that someone is straight. Charlie is asked at every new job and social gathering questions such as “do you have a girlfriend?”. Confessing to instead having a boyfriend exacerbates Charlie’s anxiety, as he isn’t sure what sort of reaction he will get. “To have somebody in public health who not only understands how silencing this constant need to differentiate oneself is, but has experienced it themselves, allows for people - like myself - to feel less alone.”
Charlie considered: “what if my doctor was gay? My therapist? It would be such a positive experience”. Having been met with reactions from general practitioners such as, “I don’t know anything about sexual health for gay men” - Charlie has been able to reflect on how often he has absconded from public health services due to a lack of understanding.
“The more we see sexuality and gender diverse folk represented in the public health sector, the more we can help young people to realise that they’re not alone,” Charlie states.
Historically speaking, there’s something particularly important about the presence of members of the LGBTQI+ community being represented in public health. For a long time, ‘queerness’ was deemed a disease in need of curing. The sorts of procedures employed were frighteningly disturbing. By normalising the LGBTQI+ presence in mental health, as seen in Charlie’s involvement in headspace and other mental health initiatives for youth, the grave history of gender and sexuality diverse folk will eventually be rewritten. But this time, it isn’t the individual deemed in need of saving: but the society that allows for their hurt to fester.
Keep up to date and reach out to Charlie Cooper on Twitter at @coopscharlie.