• Written by Stefano Verrelli, PhD Scholar, University of Sydney

Although Australia has now achieved marriage equality, the topics of sexuality and gender identity continue to spark heated – and often discriminatory – public debates.

Most recently, the issues of religious freedoms and anti-discrimination laws, the Safe Schools program, and gay conversion therapy have dominated public and political discourse.

Read more: In long-awaited response to Ruddock review, the government pushes hard on religious freedom

New research has suggested that such divisive debates have the potential to harm the mental health of LGBT people. These findings come from our nationwide study conducted during the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey in 2017.

Mental health and discrimination

The mental health of LGBT people is among the poorest in Australia. According to the most recent estimates, LGBT Australians are more likely than non-LGBT Australians to be diagnosed with a mental disorder, attempt suicide and commit acts of self-harm in their lifetimes. The most common explanation for this is related to their frequent experiences with prejudice and discrimination.

During the postal survey, many mental health organisations and marriage equality advocates publicly argued against a national vote on same-sex marriage. They often cited previous international research that showed marriage equality debates are a health risk for the LGBT community.

To test if this would also be the case in Australia, we asked 1,305 same-sex-attracted people from across Australia to report how often they were exposed to messages from each side of the marriage debate, as well as their current levels of depression, anxiety and stress.

The opposing sides of the 2017 same-sex marriage debate. AAP/Regi Varghese/Samantha Manchee

We found that increased exposure to the “no” campaign was related to poorer mental health. This included increased levels of depression, anxiety and stress, and was independent of people’s age, gender and socioeconomic status. On the other hand, people’s exposure to the “yes” campaign had no overall benefit for same-sex-attracted Australians.

Fortunately, this was not the whole story.

Social support protects mental health

We also examined an important factor that could protect the mental health of same-sex-attracted Australians during this period. Past research has shown that feeling accepted and supported by the people around you is important for mental well-being.

To test the role of social support during the marriage equality debate, we asked participants whether they believed their immediate social circles voted “yes” or “no” for same-sex marriage.

Perceiving that close family and friends voted ‘yes’ for same-sex marriage promoted acceptance and mental well-being. AAP/Sam Mooy

The results showed that same-sex-attracted people who believed their close family and friends had voted in favour of marriage equality reported significantly better mental health. Support from one’s immediate social circles was also found to shield against some of the harm done by the negative side of the same-sex marriage debate.

Although we initially found that people’s exposure to the “yes” campaign was unrelated to their mental health, the final results painted a far more complex picture. Same-sex-attracted people who believed they did not have support for marriage equality at home or at work actually benefited the most from these public messages of support.

New year, new debate

Our findings confirm what we already knew going into the national vote on same-sex marriage: public debates on issues relevant to the rights of minority groups have the potential to harm their mental health. But important lessons can be learnt from this research.

Read more: Six months after marriage equality there's much to celebrate – and still much to do

First, as our nation continues to debate issues of sexuality and gender identity, we need to ensure that these discussions are conducted with care and respect. Failing to do so can have serious mental health consequences for many of Australia’s most vulnerable populations.

Second, in the current social and political climate, LGBT allies and community organisations play an important role in promoting messages of support and acceptance. These messages are being heard loud and clear, especially among those who need to hear them the most.

If this article has raised issues for you or if you’re concerned about someone you know, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or QLife on 1800 184 527 for nationwide counselling and referral services.

For those in the LGBT community who don’t feel accepted by their immediate social circles, there is always a place close to home for you to reach out to for support.

Fiona White has received funding from the Australian Research Council, Office of Learning and Teaching and Vic Health.

Lauren Harvey, Michael R. Pulciani, and Stefano Verrelli do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Authors: Stefano Verrelli, PhD Scholar, University of Sydney

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