LGBTQ Veterans Face Compounding Mental Health Challenges

Apr 11, 2019
Originally published on April 13, 2019 1:08 pm

Editor’s note: This story is part of Breaking the Silence, a weeklong effort by news organizations across Oregon to change the way we talk about the public health crisis of death by suicide. It contains descriptions of suicide and may not be suitable for all readers. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call for help now. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service answered by trained staff 24 hours per day, every day. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 273TALK to 839863.

On a Tuesday morning in March, Sarah Hobbs was in her Portland apartment talking to her two pet rats, Disco and Mellow. They’re not cuddly but she says they help with her mental health. Disco pushed his nose through the cage so that Hobbs could scratch his chin.

They both seemed happy.

But in the fall of 2005 Hobbs stood on Southwest Jefferson Street in Portland looking up at the tall arches of the city’s iconic Vista Bridge. She was there to take her own life.

She said she convinced herself to keep living, after thinking about the effect her actions would have on others.

“If it were not for a last-minute realization I needed to stick around for my kids we wouldn't be having this discussion today,” she said.

Hobbs grew up in a conservative Fort Lauderdale, Florida, home. Her family was active in the Coral Ridge Presbyterian church — a megachurch known for its right-wing activism and "gay conversion therapy."

When Hobbs was 15, she realized she was bisexual.

“I noticed girl parts were just as sexy as guy parts,” Hobbs recalled, laughing.

Hobbs also wanted to join the military. In high school she joined Junior ROTC and 10 days after graduation she joined the Navy. It was 1981 and Hobbs was 18. Conservative, 1970s Florida and the 1980s military weren't tolerant environments for a young bisexual woman. Hobbs said everything in her life made her feel unsafe.

The veteran suicide rate is about twice that of the general public. Among lesbian, gay and bisexual people, the attempted suicide rate is three to four times higher than the general population and it’s up to 10 times higher for transgender adults.

For LGBTQ people serving in the military, those two factors compound.

Hobbs said living in the closet with the constant fear of being discovered for so long contributed to the anxiety and depression she lives with today. The military wasn’t the sole cause — she also has a rare nerve disorder that causes intense pain in her face — but, she says, the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was a major factor.

“Come out in my church, I'm kicked out of my church. Come out in the military, I'm kicked out of the military,” Hobbs said. “So everything was shut up, don't talk or you're going to be disowned, shunned.”

A 2013 study on the mental health of LGBTQ veterans found that almost 15% of all LGBTQ service members attempt suicide. That compares to less than 1% for the entire veteran population.

Bryan Cochran, a psychology professor at the University of Montana, led the study.

Cochran said environments with higher levels of discrimination and victimization can have a psychological impact on people.

“We found that veterans, LGBT veterans who experienced great levels of anxiety around concealing their sexual orientation or gender identity did tend to have greater rates of depression,” he said.

Denny Meyer calls it “gay PTSD.”

Today Meyer is with American Veterans for Equal Rights and the Transgender American Veterans Association, but from 1968 to 1978 he served in both the Navy and Army.

He’s also gay and says having to hide who he is every single day of his service was incredibly stressful — especially in Vietnam where a culture of violent homophobia and war combined to make a potentially deadly environment for him.

“One mistake and back then you could have been killed by your fellow service members,” he said, referring to potentially revealing his sexual orientation by accident.

Meyer spent 10 years carefully watching his every word, fearful of slipping up.

“You become hyper-vigilant and you have what's called PTSD,” he said. Saying he’s still hyper-vigilant 40 years later. “I still don’t trust anybody.”

After 10 years, Meyer left the Army. He was a sergeant first class — senior enough that his life would start coming under more scrutiny. He had a partner and decided it was safer for him to get out. The hyper-vigilance Meyer describes, and PTSD related to hiding his sexual identity is tough to bring to the VA, and claim for treatment.

In fact, veterans forced out of the military because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are often ineligible for VA benefits they earned through their service.

In 2015 Oregon was the first state in the country to appoint an LGBTQ veterans coordinator to help with things like name changes for transgender veterans, or changing discharges from dishonorable to honorable for those veterans kicked out because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But the VA can be an intimidating organization, especially for people who have already faced discrimination at the hands of the government.

Sarah Hobbs wasn’t forced out of the military and she does have qualifying disabilities. But for her, the idea of reliving her trauma and fighting an organization not designed for her is too much.

“It's geared solely for straight male veterans,” Hobbs said.

And while the VA may be daunting, she did want to highlight that the VA’s crisis hotline is available for all veterans regardless of your status. It isn’t just for disabled veterans. Even if you’ve never contacted the VA in the past, they’ll help you.

And it’s also not just for veterans. It’s for family members and friends too. If you’re concerned about a veteran in your life, you can call. They will help.

That 24/7 hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.

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