Prizm News / May 6, 2019 / By Ken Schneck

Dr. Mark Blair (Photo by Ken Falk)

Clinicians Prioritize Making Mental Health More Accessible and Affirming for All Ohioans

By Ken Schneck

Things have been going pretty darn well lately for Dr. Mark Blair. 

In 2015, he married Lance, the man of his dreams. In 2016, Beckett, a beautiful baby boy, was born to the happy couple via surrogacy. In 2018, his career reached a new level of fulfillment as he became the medical director of Sun Behavioral, an inpatient facility in Columbus that specializes in providing care to those in the LBGTQ community suffering from mental health illness and substance use disorders. With love, family, and career in place, it truly has been a storybook few years. 

But Dr. Blair will be the first to tell you that these happy pages had a darker prologue. Look no further than the chapter written on July 7, 2008. He titles this passage, “Rock Bottom,” a shocking time in his narrative when his own substance use had a string of devastating effects, including the temporary loss of his medical license. 

“Mental illness and addiction do not discriminate,” says Blair. “If it wasn’t for the consequences of my own addiction and inability to appropriately address my own mental health symptoms that forced me to enter into a program of recovery, I likely would never have been able to begin the journey of striving toward mental wellness.”

Dr. Blair’s inspiring commitment to positive mental health in both his own life and the clients he serves is more than needed within the LGBTQ community. We are, to put it simply, a community at risk. A few of the more jarring statistics have been shouted from the rooftops for years:

  • LGBTQ individuals are more than twice as likely as heterosexual individuals to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime.
  • LGBTQ individuals are 2.5 times more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and substance misuse compared with heterosexual individuals.

To be clear—and this cannot be a more critical point to underscore—being LGBTQ is not a mental illness. Pause. Read the previous sentence again until you absolutely know it to be the truth that it is. And then read it one more time.

Though our sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression do not in any way predispose LGBTQ individuals to mental health issues, living in a society that is so rife with stigma and discrimination astronomically increases the likelihood that we will deal with depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidal ideation. 

But all is far from lost. The bright ray of hope in this mental health landscape is that LGBTQ individuals have higher rates of mental health service use than our heterosexual counterparts. Here in Ohio, providers like Dr. Blair stand at the ready to support a future where all of our storybooks move towards the writing of more happy chapters. 

Starting Young

However dark the stats might be about mental health issues within the adult LGBTQ population, they are even more stark for our LGBTQ youth. In one of the more alarming causes for concern, recent studies suggest that the reported rates of suicide attempts for high school students who identify as LGBTQ are two to seven times higher than their heterosexual peers. 

“We have to meet LGBTQ youth where they’re at,” says Kristen Pepera, a licensed professional clinical counselor. “With elevated risks of depression, anxiety, substance use, and body image issues, creating a space for them to feel comfortable and confident is vital to their mental health.”

This past January, Pepera and her fellow licensed professional clinical counselor wife Lisa did just that, opening Colors+ Youth Center in Fairview Park, Ohio on Cleveland’s west side. Recognizing that many suburban LGBTQ youth couldn’t get to the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland or weren’t allowed to go there, the Peperas were determined to create an opportunity for supporting these youth closer to home. With drop-in hours, support groups, and a roster of various activities for engagement, their mission is to empower LGBTQ youth to grow as individuals within their community by promoting individual and community wellness. 

“There are still risks for so many LGBTQ youth coming out in homes and schools that are not safe for them due to culture or religion,” says Pepera. “We have seen firsthand that it can make a world of difference if they have a place where they can just plain be themselves.”

Trans Support

When we turn back to the statistics on the mental health of the LGBTQ population, we find a dearth of data on our trans siblings due to a healthcare world that has not advanced nearly enough with regards to trans education and support. What little info we do have indicates a complicated relationship with mental health services, given that the system still designates psychologists as the gatekeepers of medical interventions for trans individuals. 

“People are coming in saying Everything is wonderful, I have no concerns, I just need this letter,” says Dr. Caprice Lambert of Hearthstone Psychology in Dayton. “How do we meet people, provide support, and do this role that we shouldn’t have to do?”

With a client base that has seen a steady increase of individuals of trans experience, Dr. Lambert has actively set out to “show up” for the trans community: going to support groups, being at Pride, and ensuring that the staff at Hearthstone is appropriately trained to support the trans population. 

“I’m a heterosexual, cisgender, white female, so I need to be able to really show that I am a safe person for trabs clients,” says Dr. Lambert. “It has to be more than lip service.”

She highlights that it is critical that clients have an opportunity to look beyond their trans identity to their whole self, even as our culture reminds them that being trans intersects all of their other identities. To advance this work and create more of a culture of support, she helped create the Greater Dayton Transgender Mental Health Summit, a gathering for over 100 mental health clinicians, which just held its second annual event on March 22. 

“We needed a deeper dive than Trans 101,” says Dr. Lambert. “We need to do better and reach that goal of getting clinicians to the next comfort level of working with clients that results in them actually being helpful.”

Finding Your Support

Leaving the statistics behind, making mental health a priority for the LGBTQ population can make all the difference between falling susceptible to the significant risks and embracing a more healthy path. This requires barreling past the taboos associated with counseling, and finding a mental health counselor who feels like the right fit for you. 

Mary Wright,
Owner of Serenity Behavioral Services

“The stigma is still present,” says Mary White, a clinical therapist and the owner of Serenity Behavioral Services in Westerville and Columbus. “But talking to someone else about what you think and feel, understanding your issues, and owning them? That’s what healthy people do.”

As White has built an all-inclusive practice focused on making mental health care accessible and affordable for everyone in the LGBTQ community, she knows well the importance of a positive therapeutic experience. After all, she’s not only engaged in this important work, but a proud member of the LGBTQ community. 

“Many of us in the community were not taught how to have a balanced relationship, how to communicate, how to trust,” says White. “But finding the right support, working on your self esteem and confidence, and having your identity affirmed can be life-changing and life-saving.”

In other words, a great next step closer to living happily ever after.