Column: Surprising lesson in Sydney, Australia


Mike Schoenhofer - Guest Column



On Feb. 1, I retired after 25 years with the Mental Health and Recovery Services Board. Shortly afterwards, my wife Mary and I traveled to Australia to visit her family and take in some of the sights. We had quite a few incredible experiences which I chronicled in a blog at www.mschoenhofer.blogspot.com.

One of the most extraordinary events occurred days after we landed in Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Pride Festival was scheduled for March 2. It has been happening every year since 1978 and is one of the largest of these festivals in the world. The Mardi Gras Parade now includes groups of uniformed Australian Defense Force personnel, local police officers, interstate and federal police officers, and emergency services personnel from the Australian LGBTQ communities. We wanted to experience it for ourselves.

The crowd grew as we waited for the parade to begin. Despite the increasing numbers everyone was friendly, kind, considerate, and jovial. The police who were patrolling stopped to take selfies. The folks pressing in on my left, on my right, and behind were like family; we became very close.

As the parade began, the celebration and enthusiasm escalated. There was a sense of unity regardless of whether you were straight or gay; everyone belonged and everyone was welcome. Neither Mary nor I expected to have that kind of experience. We went to watch a parade and be in the crowd. But we came away with a new feeling – differences vanished, and we experienced a sense of unity in our shared humanity. When it was time to leave, we were stunned to see at least 25 rows of people packed in behind us. I looked at the guy behind me and said, “Excuse me.”

He knew what I wanted to do and said, “Good luck, Mate!”

I lead the way with Mary behind me, clinging to my belt. The crowd parted enough for us to squeeze through all 25 rows. Everyone was enjoying themselves and having fun. And everyone was kind!

It is so heartening to see the increase in the number of people who are supportive of LGBTQ individuals. Ten years ago, there was a lot less acceptance. That was when the mental health community recognized the need to support existing LGBTQ groups and to create a variety of other supports for adults and young people who are LGBTQ. I am proud to be part of this effort to create safe spaces for the LGBTQ community and their family and friends.

Despite this growing acceptance, suicide remains a considerable risk, especially for young people. A recent study estimates that 1.8 million LGBTQ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 consider suicide each year. (Trevor Project) These young people accumulate stressors from the rejection they experience in multiple forms, which include beatings and name-calling, but also quieter things like avoiding social and family gatherings. Even if no one ever says it, you get the message from some that you’re not welcome.

This situation creates unbearable stress, which leads to a sense of hopelessness and resistance to seeking the help they need. This help is critical to cope with depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems due to their environment or other causes. The support groups created in our community are a step toward reaching out to these young people who experience the rejection of society.

Another step is how important just one accepting adult can be to reduce the risk of suicide for these young people (Trevor Project). They need someone who can offer a glimmer of light and hope.

Here are some things you can do for any friend or relative thinking about suicide:

1. Let them know you love them and care about them.

• Be yourself

• Listen with compassion (without judgment / with kindness)

• Offer hope

• Take it seriously

2. Let them know that help is available right here in our community regardless of whether you are straight or gay, old or young — www.wecarepeople.org.

3. If there is danger of suicide, call 1-800-567-H.O.P.E or text: 741741 anytime – and go with them.

As I enter into this next chapter of my life, I’ve realized the terrible harm that judgment and shaming do to individuals, to families, and to our community. I am choosing to practice what I experienced among those 300,000 Australians in Sydney last March: kindness and acceptance of everyone from my heart as a brother or sister in our shared humanity.

Mike Schoenhofer

Guest Column

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