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LGBTQ-plus-supportive therapists underscore the need for inclusive mental health care in SLO County 

Being queer and on the lookout for mental health care in San Luis Obispo County frequently results in run-ins with therapists who are at client capacity or don't take insurance.

But North County resident Lauren Phelps faced another hurdle with a Paso Robles therapist they were working with in 2008.

click to enlarge FAMILIAR STORY The queer community especially benefits from mental health care professionals who have lived experience because it allows for deeper conversations, according to Paso Robles therapist Lauren Phelps. - FILE COURTESY PHOTO BY SARA FORD
  • File Courtesy Photo By Sara Ford
  • FAMILIAR STORY The queer community especially benefits from mental health care professionals who have lived experience because it allows for deeper conversations, according to Paso Robles therapist Lauren Phelps.

"She was homophobic and tried to convince me that I was gay because of trauma from my dad and some abuse that I didn't remember must have happened, because that's the only way someone would be gay," said Phelps, who uses nonbinary pronouns.

While that interaction was 15 years ago, Phelps told New Times on Dec. 1 that it's still hard to find resources and supportive people in SLO County.

"Especially therapists," they said. "It's basically impossible to find someone who specializes and treats queer, especially trans clients, because they're either full or don't take insurance."

Today, Phelps is a therapist in Paso Robles. They publicly advertise as LGBTQ-plus-supportive and accept insurance. Still, being queer friendly doesn't mean clients can stop shopping around for better care.

"It just means you're not explicitly homophobic," Phelps said with a laugh. "There is something about people who have the lived experience that elevates what you can talk about and how deep you can go in some of these conversations. I don't think it's absolutely necessary, but people who don't have the lived experience, I think, need to take a lot of extra training and most people don't do that."

That experience includes facing anti-queer behavior, which erupted around SLO County in the last year.

In June, the Arroyo Grande City Council voted to fly the Pride flag at City Hall despite a barrage of opposition from several community members. Later that month, Templeton residents and the Gala Pride and Diversity Center lambasted school board trustee Jennifer Grinager for her connection to the parent-led nonprofit Moms for Liberty. The group allegedly orchestrated a special school board meeting as a way to end protections for transgender students.

The local Moms for Liberty chapter again received flak in September after a handful of chapter members lashed out at the Morro Bay Library and Barnes and Noble for stocking books on the LGBTQ-plus community in the children's sections.

Leaflets with homophobic and anti-Semitic messaging were strewn in a Paso Robles neighborhood in early June this year. The Paso Robles Joint Unified School District held debates over whether to allow Pride flags in classrooms, and Kenney Enney returned to the school board after being ousted in December 2022 for writing controversial Facebook statements about transgender youth.

Phelps said that after their interaction with the therapist in 2008, they turned to the Psychology Today directory to find a more supportive expert and was matched with Paso Robles marriage and family therapist Julie Seden-Hansen.

A full-time licensed therapist for 15 years, Seden-Hansen runs a private practice with five therapists, some of whom belong to the LGBTQ-plus community.

"There is such a need for support for members of this community and for safe professionals, because even though it's an ethical duty for a therapist to be backed by science and not be prejudicial, that's not always the case, especially in this area," she said. "It's very important for people to know that there are practitioners who are not only supportive but part of this community."

Seden-Hansen told New Times that the most significant change she's noticed among young members of the LGBTQ-plus community is that they talk about it more than their predecessors did.

"Now, if you get your average junior high student in therapy, if they don't identify as LGBTQ, a part of their friend group does," she said. "It used to be very exceptional when a kid might say something to indicate they have a gay friend. Now, it's normal. That's how kids are talking."

However, young LGBTQ-plus community members still feel unsafe in SLO County, according to the 2021 California Healthy Kids Survey.

Responses from county seventh, ninth, and 11th graders who took the survey showed that in 2021, 70.2 percent of those who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in the previous year, prompting them to stop their usual activities. That percentage was 73.9 percent for those who identified as transgender. More than 60 percent of trans-identifying participants also noted that they were harassed for being gay or lesbian, or because someone thought they were.

Seden-Hansen said that such harmful experiences make way for depression to set in.

"There are a lot of anti-trans and anti-gay events that happen regularly to young people in their homes and with teachers and with peers," she said. "There are a lot of young people in their 20s and 30s, not just high school kids, who perhaps get discouraged and don't want to turn for help and get judged and treated wrongly."

Seden-Hansen advocated for people to continue looking for a well-suited therapist even if the "first helper, second helper, or third helper didn't turn out to be the right help." She recommended calling respective insurance companies to ask for referrals and telehealth care if local therapists don't take insurance and have rates beyond their budgets. Seden-Hansen stopped accepting some insurance carriers a couple of years ago.

"Unfortunately, they only pay about half of what the going rate is," she said. "Basically, the rate of what they pay has not gone up since 2008, and it wasn't high enough then."

Licensed marriage and family therapist Phelps confirmed to New Times that base reimbursement rate for insurance is $70, while the base rate charged by therapists is between the $150 to $200. But there's some relief for both clients and professionals through out-of-network benefits offered by many insurance companies.

"If a therapist is not contracted with an insurance provider and the client has out-of-network benefits, they can submit what's called the superbill," Phelps said. "So, they're paying the full rate for therapy. The therapist gets their full rate and then the client gets most of it back from the insurance agency anyway."

Both Phelps and Seden-Hansen also recommended that parents and guardians of LGBTQ-plus youth also seek out help. In recent years, Seden-Hansen witnessed the older generation—both parents and grandparents—step into her office to figure out how to navigate their kids' process of coming out.

"This is one of the reasons why we really need LGBTQ-informed, identified, and supportive therapists because sometimes people want to come in and wonder, 'How can I change this?'" she said. "You want to go to a professional therapist because we're informed about all the different ways people can be, and we're supportive of respecting the individual and helping people not sever their relationships with family." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].

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