ADOLESCENCE is a complex and demanding period of time generally characterised as a state of flux where key decisions are transacted and emotions run high. In my experience, this is certainly true of our sexuality.

While understanding one’s sexuality may take some time, this is the period where key questions emerge. Unfortunately in our society, the dominant culture overshadows and while it’s an important rite of passage to question and discover, often for a person attracted to someone of the same gender or for someone whose feelings don’t fall within the limited cultural parameters of what is normal — things can get pretty tricky.

Right now in Australia and globally there are thousands of LGBTI youth going through a tough time. Generally this has little to do with their sexuality per se. It speaks more to the way the individual internalises the stereotypes, as well as the additional pressure from family, friends and other community institutions to conform to those stereotypes.

They might feel overwhelmed by a “secret” that follows them every day at school, work or at home. Or they may feel alienated by their peers after coming out or bullied and harassed. In some severe cases they may even be suffering physical abuse by friends and family. In addition, their sexuality may not entirely be clear so they fall outside of the usual groupings. So where does that leave them?

I might be painting a pretty bleak picture here, but for far too many this scenario is their daily reality. As we know, this reality can last days, weeks, years or even a lifetime.

It is staggering to think that in this day and age we continue to see young LGBTI people struggle to simply be themselves simply because of the perceived or real reactions of the communities in which they live.

Same-sex attracted youth are up to six times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers and have higher rates of self-harm and other related mental health issues, such as substance use and depression. For young trans* people, the rates are off the chart.

For years we have been saying that it doesn’t have to be this way.

That’s why headspace supports initiatives such as International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT). As the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, we have a responsibility to proactively change the hearts and minds of Australians to improve social attitudes toward the LGBTI community. We stand up for the health and wellbeing rights of all young Australians.

To do this, we have publicly supported marriage equality not just in words but in action — including providing a submission to the Senate Inquiry on the issue. We have also run and been involved with anti-homophobia campaigns and pride events across the country.

We do this because we know that discrimination and prejudice can lead to some serious poor health and mental health outcomes for individuals.

Personally, I have marched in the Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras Parade with headspace, and even though I’ve had to stand in the rain a few times for several hours it was worth every moment.

This is because I could see the pride on the faces of the LGBTI youth and headspace staff with whom I marched. There is no reason they shouldn’t feel the same level of acceptance walking down Bourke Street Mall in Melbourne, the main street of Broken Hill or anywhere else in Australia. Something I take for granted every day.

Sydney is buzzing during Mardi Gras and it’s clear to me that people (from all over the world) feel free to express their sexuality and love. From time to time over the course of the year, you see people holding hands and openly expressing affection, but there is nothing like Sydney during Mardi Gras to really see what it might be like for the LGBTI community if we as a society got our act together.

Our primary role at headspace is to support those LGBTI youth, and any other young person, going through a tough time.

headspace is all about early intervention. This means we want to help young people work through any issues early because we know the potential risks of not doing so. We don’t believe young LGBTI people have to wait to leave school or move to the city for things to get better — we’ve got their back in improving their lives now.

This happens by providing free or low cost and confidential support at our 65 centres across the country as well as our online counselling service eheadspace. We do everything we can to make these services as welcoming as we can for all young people.

Additionally, centres in locations like Townsville, Wagga Wagga, Port Augusta and Frankston, to name just a few, have specific programs and support networks for local LGBTI young people.

I’m happy to say that LGBTI young people are walking through the doors of headspace centres or contacting eheadspace seeking help. Currently, 14 per cent of clients at headspace centres identify themselves gay, lesbian, bisexual or questioning. For eheadspace the numbers are even higher, with one in five of those logging on being same-sex attracted.

However, I believe we can do even more.

headspace will continue to tackle homophobia and transphobia and support LGBTI youth in every possible way we can, not just on notable days like IDAHOT on May 17, but each and every day.

It’s time to change the story for young LGBTI people across Australia.

Chris Tanti is the CEO of headspace. Follow him on Twitter.

Details: headspace.org.au

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