Why marriage equality should not become yet another expensive (and hysterical) NI drama

Siobhan O’Neill is a health psychologist and professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University. She is currently leading several studies on mental health and suicide in Northern Ireland and teaches on several of Ulster’s undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in psychology. 

The obsession with the “naturalness” or otherwise, of particular sexual practices between consenting adults, may appear bizarre and laughable to onlookers. However such debates about the rights of minority groups and the right to discriminate on the basis of personal beliefs influence how we cope with difference, and our ability to move forward.

The inequality that continues to exist in NI is not only illogical but it is linked to a broader problem of marginalisation and disconnectedness for minority groups and for men. This has in my view, profound implications for our mental health as a population and suicide.

There is now a strong body of evidence pointing to high levels of mental health problems in Northern Ireland and we have some of the highest suicide rates in Western Europe.

The factors precipitating each death are complex and it is impossible to determine the exact proportion of people who take their own lives as a consequence of issues around sexual orientation.

However the research into the experiences of LGBT people in NI do provide some important clues. People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual have seven times the suicide rate of those who self identify as straight.

Half of gay people in NI have considered suicide and a quarter have attempted to take their own life. People who are transgender have shockingly high rates of suicide.

However it is important to point out that suicidal thoughts and behaviours are far from inevitable in such minority groups. Research shows us that the biggest predictor of mental health and suicidal behaviour in LGBT people is their perceptions and experience of stigma and discrimination.

In other words there is nothing pathological about same sex attraction per se; it is in fact discrimination and prejudice that causes negative outcomes.

LGBT people who live in open tolerant societies where they perceive themselves to have a social role are at no higher risk of suicide than anyone else.

The life events that increase suicide risk vary in their nature but they do share certain cognitive characteristics. The emotions of shame, guilt, failure, isolation and disconnection are dominant.

All the main theories of suicide have the importance of social connectedness at their core. Marriage promotes connectedness, not only between the individuals concerned but connectedness to society generally.

By offering a minority population the opportunity to fully participate in the rituals and structures of modern society, marriage equality is an important gesture.

Marriage equality and what it symbolises, has implications for everyone, but particularly men. Men constitute over three quarters of those who die by suicide here, they are less likely to ask for help for mental health problems and all too often die without anyone having known that they were struggling.

In fact, when we look at the age profiles of those who die by suicide we see that they are the same men who have been exposed to the violence of the height of the Troubles.

They are men who exist in a culture which promotes an aggressive and macho stereotype of masculinity and solutions to discord which involve violence against others, or in the case of suicide, violence against the self.

This culture pathologises behaviours considered feminine, which includes attraction to males, admitting weakness, and seeking help for emotional problems.

Some of the “no side” arguments had distinctly misandric undertones, reflecting the damaging and wildly inaccurate stereotype that men are unable to control their sexual urges and are not to be trusted with children.

However, the research shows us that social and economic status have the strongest influence on childrens’ mental health outcomes; the sexual orientation of the parent or parents is actually irrelevant.

Intolerance, discrimination and prejudice remain central concerns for Northern Ireland and we should aim to address them in whatever form they take.

It is simply inconsistent to support mental health and suicide prevention on the one hand, and on the other to allow members of minority groups to be discriminated against.

By pathologising same sex attraction and help-seeking behaviour we are doing men a great disservice and perpetuating a status quo which precipitates mental illness, substance abuse, stigma and male suicide.

The extension of marriage equality to NI should not be allowed to become an expensive drama requiring campaigns and referenda, these will again be used to polarise and highlight our divisions.

We should simply acknowledge that here too, just like our neighbours, we value all our people, we tolerate difference and respect authenticity.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.