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Reaching out: Research project seeks to highlight mental health needs in SLO’s LGBTQ community 

As San Luis Obispo prepares to celebrate Pride in the Plaza, one Cal Poly professor along with a group of students and community members are gathering data for a comprehensive look at the mental health needs of the county’s LGBTQ population.

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Cal Poly Assistant Professor Jay Bettergarica is currently leading a months-long research project to create a mental health needs assessment for SLO County’s LGBTQ Community. Funded by the county’s Behavioral Health Agency, the study will be one of the most detailed and wide-ranging studies of the mental health needs and available services for LGBTQ individuals.

“Really we want to find out how the queer community is doing in SLO,” Bettergarcia said. “We want to understand people’s experiences. We want to find out why they’ve sought out mental health services, or if they haven’t sought services, why?”

The study will gather information on common mental health concerns, access and barriers to mental health services, and positive and negative experiences with those services. It will also explore issues of minority stress, internalized stigma, and “overall wellness and resilience” for LGBTQ people in SLO County, according to a description of the project on Cal Poly’s website.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that LGBTQ individuals experience more negative mental health outcomes due to the prejudice and bias they encounter. LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely to experience a mental health condition like generalized anxiety disorder or major depression. In addition, fear of coming out and being discriminated against can lead to depression, suicidal ideations, substance abuse, and even post-traumatic stress disorder, according to NAMI.

“LGBTQ people must confront the stigma and prejudice based on their sexual orientation or gender identity while also dealing with the societal bias against mental conditions,” NAMI’s website states. “Some people report having to hide their sexual orientation from those in the mental health system for fear of being ridiculed and rejected.”

As part of the study, Bettergarcia hopes to learn if similar barriers exist in SLO County, and more broadly, if the LGBTQ community feels connected, welcome, and supported.

“If we are going to be serious about taking care of people’s mental health and wellness, we need to look at communities that are disproportionately impacted by these issues,” Bettergarcia said. “The queer community is one of those.”

The study is being carried out in two phases. The first, currently ongoing, is an online survey and questionnaire, which is available in both English and Spanish. Next, the team will conduct multiple in-person focus groups of between six and eight people per session. A group of students and community members is assisting Bettergarcia with the project.

The goal is to hear from as many in the LGBTQ community as possible, gathering data across a wide range of age groups, ethnicities, and locations within the county.

click to enlarge GATHERING DATA A mental health needs assessment for the LGBTQ community in SLO County will use data from surveys and focus groups conducted by Cal Poly Assistant Professor Jay Bettergarcia and a team of students and community members. - PHOTO COURTESY OF QUEERCARES.COM
  • Photo Courtesy Of Queercares.Com
  • GATHERING DATA A mental health needs assessment for the LGBTQ community in SLO County will use data from surveys and focus groups conducted by Cal Poly Assistant Professor Jay Bettergarcia and a team of students and community members.

“We are really trying to reach people who are not typically reached,” Bettergarcia said. “So we are really trying to figure out how to best reach out from the very top of North County all the way down to the very bottom of South County.”

Once all the data is gathered and analyzed, it will be presented to the county, which is funding the study with money provided through the state’s Mental Health Services Act. Nestor Veloz-Passalacqua, an administrative services officer for the county’s Behavioral Health Department said the assessment’s findings could lead to changes to, or the addition of, programs and services that address any gaps or needs it identifies.

“We want to know what we can do better to provide for those services countywide,” Veloz-Passalacqua said. “We want to be proactive in finding out just what this community needs.”

Bettergarica also wants to see the research from the study used to improve mental health services for LGBTQ people in the county.

“I don’t want this data to just sit in an Excel file and that’s it,” Bettergarcia said. “I hope it can create some real programmatic changes.” ∆

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.

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