On Purpose

Promoting an inclusive approach to mental health is not a sin



Patrick Ellen (he/him) is an October 2020 On Purpose associate, currently on placement at Sustainable Ventures where he is focussing on broadening access to employability and entrepreneurship in the cleantech sector.

If you do one thing during this LGBT+ History month, I honestly recommend that you sit down and dedicate 5 hours to watching It’s a Sin. I am not the first person to state that it is possibly one of the most well-written and produced pieces of TV in years, with characters you cannot but help but become emotionally tied to and an emotional rollercoaster of a plot.

However, for anyone who knows even a little about LGBTQIA+* history, it’s almost impossible for a coming of age drama centred on gay men in London in the 1980s to avoid tragedy and trauma. Russell T Davies' latest programme is no exception although it does have many beautiful, light-hearted moments showing the joy of being queer and young (something that is often missing from depictions of LGBT+ youth). However, watching the portrayal of both the personal and societal impact of HIV/AIDS is undoubtedly a difficult watch. As a cis gay man, it hits home particularly hard.

There have broadly been significant improvements in the UK for LGBTQIA+ people since the 1980s, and in my lifetime HIV/AIDS has gone from being a highly fatal, highly stigmatised disease to one that is much more easily manageable, albeit if you are lucky enough to live in a country with free and universal healthcare. However, growing up in the nineties and noughties I personally remember feeling terrified by the spectre of HIV/AIDS without really being able to understand much about it, especially at school. One other thing It’s a Sin does brilliantly is weave into its narrative examples of the marginalisation that LGBTQIA+ people faced during the period. The most obvious example was the Section 28 legislation that was so vigorously enforced at the time, that when I left secondary school in 2004, I don’t think I heard even one mention of LGBTQIA+ people existing in my education. While I am proud to identify as gay today, I don’t doubt for a second that Section 28 was in part of the reason it took me many years to come out to friends and family.

Even when society moves forward positively, the process to get there can also take its toll. I felt so much happiness and joy when Ireland voted yes on the referendum to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015, thanks to many hard working LGBTQIA+ campaigners and their allies. However, have you ever wondered how exhausting it could feel that the general public is voting on your right to simply have the same fundamental rights as everybody else? Right now, particularly in the UK, trans people are consistently put under the microscope in this way and transphobic voices from those in power or with influence seem to be louder than ever. I cannot imagine how it must feel that their existence, access to appropriate healthcare, their right to be identified as they see themselves, or simply the right to use the bathroom in which they feel most comfortable is constantly questioned and challenged. And if my view was not apparent, let me unequivocally clear - trans rights are human rights.

When you start to consider this emotional and mental burden many LGBTQIA+ people have had to face through their lives, either in the past or today, it may come as no surprise that we experience mental illness to higher prevalence than the general population. Unfortunately, this pattern of poorer mental health outcomes can be seen across many other marginalised groups, with evidence suggesting this is very much related to discrimination and structural inequalities. Black men are more likely to be diagnosed with severe mental health issues and be sectioned, but this pattern is not seen in boys before the age of 11, suggesting a link to the greater level of structural racism that black teenagers start to experience as they move on from childhood. Likewise, women are far more likely to have to take on caring responsibilities, and women carers are more likely to have anxiety and depression compared to the general population. Depending on the intersectionality of an individual's identity, this may compound even further.

In the pandemic world of today, mental health matters more than ever as economic uncertainty, unemployment, extra caring responsibilities, homeschooling, isolation, and other trauma inflict their toll. Employers are also increasingly recognising that they have a responsibility to ensure positive mental health in their workplaces. It is therefore fantastic to see more and more employers work with organisations like MHFA England to have Mental Health First Aiders in the workplace to foster more positive conversations regarding mental health, such as my previous employer Unilever.

But going forward, mental health and inclusivity need to take a much more hand-in-hand approach. Organisations need to recognise that the different lived experiences and discrimination that different groups experience can mean a higher susceptibility to mental illness and cater their mental wellbeing offer to address this. Why not start with a sense check that your Time to Talk day activities on February 4th are being as inclusive as possible?

Taking an inclusive approach to mental health in your organisation doesn’t mean that you will solve all the mental health challenges that marginalised groups can experience, but it is certainly part of the solution.

*I choose to use the acronym LGBTQIA+ as I believe it is the most inclusive term. My interpretation of this stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or Questioning, Intersex and Asexual with the plus signifying the spectrum and diversity of Identity, Expression, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. 

If you are ever feeling overwhelmed, please know that it is always okay to reach out. If you have been personally affected by any of the issues discussed in this blog you can contact the organisations below: 


  • Phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)


  • Phone: 0800 0502020

(Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash)