The LGBTI&Q community, among others called for better protection of confidentiality 

Symposium: If Bhutan is serious about preventing suicides and addressing mental health issues, it should not forget its gender diverse people commonly known as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexual and Queer (LGBTI&Q).

This was what participants’ at the daylong symposium, organised by department of public health, shared on the situation of anxiety, depression and suicides among the sexually diverse people of Bhutan.

Although no studies have been carried out in Bhutan to understand mental health issues with the LGBTI&Q community, the global trend is that anxiety, depression and suicides are higher among this community.  To cope with problems, many use drugs and alcohol.

Giving an insight of issues through personal experience in tackling suicidal attempts, drugs and alcohol use, a 22-year-old member of the LGBTI&Q who describes himself as a homosexual said, growing up in a community that mocked sexually diverse people is the most depressing part of his life.

He faced discrimination at school including head of the institution.

“I attempted suicide multiple times on unidentified pills, hanging and almost jumped into a river, “ he said adding that he once got hospitalised for consuming excessive pills.

Another LGBTI&Q member, who identified herself as a transgender said wearing a gho was the last thing she wanted to do as a young school goer. She ultimately quit schooling and later attempted suicide on several occasions.

Stigma from family, friends and neighbours were factors that pushed her to take her own life.

Issues with LGBTI&Q community in Bhutan are not just limited to suicidal attempts; mental problem, drugs and alcohol use but in availing health service itself.

“We lack confidentiality and privacy in revealing our health problems,” Dechen Seldon, the first Bhutanese transgender to come out in public said.

A 27-year-old MSM, Passang who came out early this year said he also attempted suicide while he was studying at Chukha Higher Secondary School. He later received counselling from a psychiatrist.

“In terms of drugs and alcohol use, most of the MSM people of my age are involved and some run bars themselves,” he said.

Similar issues were also reflected on an assessment on stigma and discrimination impacting universal access to HIV and health services for MSM and transgender (TG) people in Bhutan by the health ministry in May 2013.

During interviews for the assessment, the majority of health assistants and assistant clinical officers had highlighted that they are in fact challenged by the limited knowledge and understanding about MSM/TG sexual health issues in Bhutan.

In terms of access to information on HIV and STI prevention, the MSM group sourced it from the Internet, newspapers and magazines, while TGs accessed TV/radio and HISC.

The daylong symposium highlighted that the community needed attention since the only avenue to connect with them to date was through the HIV/AIDS programme. The lack of attention was apparent at the symposium on November 19 when most participants from the policymaking level listed to attend the event were absent.

Meanwhile, a health worker said the draft of questionnaire for the suicide registry does not include the sexuality aspects because those involved in drafting lacked knowledge on sexuality orientation.

“The work is not final yet and we’ll make sure the sexual orientation is included in the suicide registry,” the official said adding it was important to understand the trend of mental health among LGBTI&Q community.

A volunteer at a rehabilitation centre in Thimphu, Dr John Howard said mental health matters for the community because going by the examples in his country, Australia, many LGBTI&Q people committed suicide before anyone else knew their sexual orientation.

“The case is not going to be very different in Bhutan but the environment here can enable the issues to move faster than any other countries,” he said adding that one of the factors associated with suicidality was sexuality.

He added it was not the gender that makes mental health a problem among the LGBTI&Q community but people’s behaviour and unfair policies towards them.

Nirmala Pokhrel