Each incident of verbal and physical abuse rooted in a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity increases their likelihood of engaging in self-harming behavior by 2.5 times. When that same individual has a history of adverse childhood experiences, including rejection from their friends, family members or religious leaders, the rate of self-harming behavior is further increased.
By and large, members of the LGBTQ military and veteran community have disproportionately experienced forms of discrimination on individual and institutional levels when compared to their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. These stressful, military-life experiences further exacerbate the rates of psychological distress, such as anxiety, depression, and self-harming behaviors.
I enlisted in the United States Navy shortly after my 19th birthday. Although a late bloomer in many aspects of my life, I knew when I enlisted under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) that I was gay. Like most young adults confused about their sexuality, I did everything I could to hide it. I felt there was simply no way I could accept this “unnatural” orientation, because it meant turning my back on everything I understood growing up. I was not ready to lose that support system.
Unable to trust my shipmates with this dark secret while serving under a law that reminded people like me we weren’t worthy to serve, I lived in constant fear of losing my career and military identity. I faced the effects of institutionalized anti-LGBTQ sentiments, and the weight of it crushed me. Behind all the smiles and laughter of being able to live independently for the first time in my life were feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and weakness.
After DADT was repealed, I felt the need to finally address this heavy weight because my depression had started to affect my job performance. I was serving in a Marine Corps unit during a time when seeking the help of a “wizard,” or a mental health professional, was taboo. Being tough physically and mentally was a part of the job. I found myself secluded from everyone because I still feared the consequences of being outed to my battalion.
I turned to alcohol to forget my problems, and for a while it seemed to work. Fatigue started to sink in, however, because my anxiety was not letting me sleep. I felt unworthy to wear the uniform and for being unable to keep up with the demands of my battalion. The systems in place that the military perpetuates creates barriers that prevent help-seeking behaviors because it is treated as weakness among peers. It is no coincidence that suicide rates are at an all-time high for both active and veteran servicemembers.
Speaking to mental health counselors and attending groups with other active duty servicemembers who share the same experiences was essential to my recovery. I learned how to understand maladaptive thoughts and create positive shifts in order to change the way I experienced life. Our thoughts, feelings, and actions affect each other. My faulty thinking patterns made me feel terrible and therefore affected my actions. I learned that I didn’t have to suffer in the first place. I realized that I was minimizing my own suffering because I just happen to be born into a world where structures exists that allow discrimination to occur.
Continue reading on page 6 of Modern Military Magazine‘s April 2020 issue.