LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors, meet Heather Sexton, CT (counselor trainee). Heather, a wife, mom and native of eastern Kentucky, has relocated to Wheeling and is finishing her master’s degree in counseling. Once she graduates from Lindsey Wilson College in the summer of 2019, she plans to begin providing local counseling services with a particular focus on the LGBTQ+ community.
“I want to help this particular community because a gap in services specific to this group exists in the local area,” says Heather. “I want to offer LGBTQ+-friendly counseling services.”
The LGBTQ+ Community and Mental Health
There are personal struggles as well as various mental health issues that are prevalent within the community. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning individuals are almost three times more likely than others to experience major depression or generalized anxiety disorder. The suicide risk is also increased. In fact, for LGBTQ+ persons between the ages of 10-24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. In addition, between 38-65 percent of transgender individuals have contemplated suicide. Substance abuse is also a grave concern. Among the general population, around 9 percent suffer from substance use disorder. Within the LGBTQ+ population, that number rises to 20-30 percent. Rates of mental health issues are even higher among those who choose not to reveal the truth about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Why This Discrepancy?
People in the LGBTQ+ community must confront prejudice, discrimination, violence, abuse, and/or family rejection based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity. These factors cause members of this community to become depressed, anxious or suicidal. In many cases, they can cause an individual to turn to substance use to numb the pain of social stigma and harassment.
The Unfortunate History of Mental Health Treatment and the LGBTQ+ Community
Until 1986, homosexuality was listed in one form or another in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a mental illness all its own. Prior to that time, many in the LGBTQ+ community were subjected to harsh “treatments,” often against their will. Such “treatments” included forced hospital stays, electro-shock and conversion therapy.
Thankfully, such “remedies” are largely unheard of today. However, access to mental health care is sometimes difficult because patients fear discrimination. Finding a mental health provider who is comfortable working with the queer community and who understands the culture and its unique issues can be a challenge, especially outside of large metropolitan areas.
LGBTQ+ Friendly Counseling Comes to Wheeling
Now Heather is bringing these specialized and much-needed counseling services to our area. Until her graduation, Heather is required to practice under supervision. Her work is supervised by Heather Ryan, a counselor with The Process LLC counseling in Elm Grove. Heather Sexton also works with a clinical coordinator to ensure the highest standards of care for her patients. She is also required to complete an internship in the counseling field.
As part of that requirement, Heather Sexton will be offering a support group beginning this month. Titled Queer Conversation, the group is intended to be an open forum for discussion of “all things under the rainbow.” Heather Sexton hopes that attendees will find peer support and encouragement as well as group counseling services. “People have concerns and questions,” she says. “Particularly when they’re first coming out.”
The Coming-Out Journey
“Coming out,” or initially opening up to others about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity, can be trying as people often struggle to reconcile who they are with how significant others in their lives will react to the news. Heather likens the burden of not being free to be who you are to wearing a suit of armor all the time. “If you’ve never worn armor, it’s … exhausting!” she declares. And coming out isn’t necessarily a one-time event. “We come out over and over again,” Heather Sexton says. Not only to family and friends but to the person who notices Heather’s wedding band and asks about her “husband.”‘ She then has to explain that her spouse is another woman. However, she is happy to come out as many times as she needs to. “I always feel like when I come out, someone learns something new.” She’s grateful for any opportunity to enlighten others.
Heather invites the LGBTQ+ community to come out and join her for Queer Conversation. It will be held every third Wednesday from 6-7 p.m. beginning Wednesday, Nov. 21, at Marian House Drop-In Center, NAMI Great Wheeling at 115 18th St. This group will be geared toward adults, but anyone under the age of 18 is welcome to attend if accompanied by a parent. Heather Sexton hopes to offer other types of group support in the future, such as a teen peer group and a parent support group.
To schedule a private appointment with Heather, she can be reached through The Process LLC at 304-715-3010.
• Ellen Brafford McCroskey works in the Lawyer Development Department at Orrick’s GOC in downtown Wheeling, where she has been employed for seven years. A lifelong Wheeling resident, she is a graduate of Wheeling Park High School and Wheeling Jesuit University with a bachelor’s degree in human resources management. Her hobbies include writing, photography and crocheting. Her pet causes are educating others on the need for solutions to the opioid crisis and the need for equality for all people. Ellen resides in Warwood with her husband Doug, who is the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their extended family includes four adult children and their significant others; a number of biological and “adopted” grandkids; their dads; numerous in-laws and outlaws; and several rescued pets.