LGBT health expert discusses physical, mental health disparities with UIC students

Alicia Matthews at UIC. Photo: L. Thomson/GSC.

Dr. Alicia K. Matthews spoke to a room of about 40 students at the University of Illinois at Chicago campus about health disparities among LGBTQ individuals Thursday as part of a UIC Pride for the national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Awareness Week.

Matthews is a Associate Professor in the Department of Health Systems Science at UIC whose research interests are centered around examining the factors associated with physical and mental health disparities among members of marginalized social groups. Since 2006 Matthews has also been a principal investigator at Howard Brown Health Center.

The purpose of this discussion for Matthews was to “help the next generation of scholars” address these issues in their own communities and to highlight the fact that there are “so many great things going on in the West Side” related to LGBTQ health.

Liz Thomson, assistant director of the UIC Gender & Sexuality department, was excited at the prospect of using this discussion to bring together those from the west and east campuses on important issues of LGBT health.

The presentation started with a demonstration from Matthews, who asked all  in the room who have experienced teasing to raise their hand. Everyone in the room raised their hand. Matthews explained that while many people understand teasing at a personal level, we need to examine the social effects.

The purpose of the research Matthews is doing is to continue to shift the focus from the individual to the social.

“What is the larger experience of those who are stigmatized?” Matthews asked. “Are we able to quantify and capture that in meaningful ways?”

The research done in the last 10 to 20 years has strongly linked marginalized groups with increased risk of hypertension, stress, anxiety, and depression. New research being done is moving beyond that to find out the hows and the whys of this process manifests socially in health disparities, according to Matthews.

Those health disparities increase exponentially as more marginalized categories and are often related to stress coping mechanisms. If an individual had one of the three categories, lesbian, ethnic minority, or low education, applied to them their rate of smoking was 5% higher than those without, 11% with two categories, and 20% with three categories, according to the study.

Just looking at these kinds of numbers is not enough for Matthews, who is turning to a new direction of study.

“There is not a lot of work on describing the hows and whys of these negative outcomes,” she said.

So while it is widely known that minority groups have higher instances of health conditions than the general population there is little work on a direct causal link. For Matthews, finding that causal links and mechanisms is the key to long term solutions on broad social scales.

While the perception among many is that these stereotypes are fading away, Matthews warns that the means by which they are reinforced are insidious and the most prominent example of the use of these age old stereotypes “typically happens though the media.”

Matthews gave an example of how stereotypes can be subtly reinforced with an example from hurricane Katrina. The example as a juxtaposition of two news articles, one using the word “looting” to describe behavior of an African American refugee and the other using the word “finding” to describe the same activity for Caucasian refugees.

When discussions of marginalized groups occur it is important to understand that perception is highly important to altering the health of those individuals in those groups.

The state-based Defense Of Marriage Acts (DOMA) gave researchers like Matthews a living experiment to further examine the direct impact of the perception of social stigma on health. Those individuals who lived in one of the 16 states that passed a DOMA, experienced a 36 percent increase in mood disorders, 26 percent increase in generalized anxiety, and a 41 percent increase in alcohol use disorders between the five years before and after the passage of those amendments.

These perceptions of social stigma do not exist in isolation and are informed by the experiences of social stigma that can cause internalized responses and the repetition of these stigmas become bound up with our social institutions. In a study of adult African American lesbians who experienced discrimination as a youth related to their sexual orientation, Matthews explained there was a profound rise in measurable rates of suicidal ideation, fear of violence, depression, and alcohol abuse compared to the general population.

Citing a study done in 1999 entitled “Lessons from social psychology on discrediting psychiatric stigma” by Corrigan & Penn, Matthews talked about the obstacles to reversing social stigma. The study explored methods to reduce social stigma around mental illness and concluded that while protest and education are necessary they are much less effective without direct social connection.

Matthews concluded the presentation with a brief discussion on the importance of fostering good allies.