Queer authors focus on LGBTQ mental health

Two area women are working to highlight mental health issues in the LGBTQ community. Stephanie Schroeder is a gender-nonconforming former Philly resident with spiky black hair, lots of denim and a smoky laugh. Teresa Theophano is a South Jersey queer femme with flaming red hair, tattoos, piercing blue eyes and a quiet voice that commands attention. These compelling women are passionate advocates for LGBTQ mental health — the subject of their new book, “Headcase: LGBTQ Writers and Artists on Mental Health and Wellness.”

The details they present are critically important to the LGBTQ community. One in five Americans has a mental health condition, yet it is the least discussed health crisis in America. People with mental health conditions are often stigmatized by their disease, which makes accessing help all the more difficult for people in crisis. This is immeasurably harder for LGBTQ people who also face the stigma of homophobia and transphobia. As portions of the book explain, there is a history of mental health abuses of LGBTQ people, like conversion therapy, and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) listed homosexuality as a mental illness until 1973 and being transgender a mental illness until 2013. Those categorizations led to both criminalization and institutionalization of LGBTQ people.

Schroeder and Theophano are hoping to open a dialogue about mental illness and LGBTQ people with “Headcase.” The book is a gripping compendia of 38 different submissions from people with mental health conditions as well as mental health providers. Diversity informs the book with a broad spectrum of contributors of all genders, races, ages, classes and mental health conditions. Included are essays as widely different as a report on a trans youth in Detroit, graphic art about what it feels like to have an “invisible” illness, LGBTQ substance abuse, being queer and Black navigating the mental health system and the intersection of religion and feelings of worthlessness. It’s a fascinating, heartbreaking and deeply compelling collection.

PGN spoke with Schroeder and Theophano about why they embarked on the project and what they hoped to achieve with it. Schroeder’s earlier memoir, “Beautiful Wreck: Sex, Lies & Suicide,” detailed her experience with bipolar disorder and navigating the mental health system as a lesbian. Theophano is a licensed clinical social worker. She works with older LGBTQ adults and caregivers at SAGE.

When Theophano began the project, she soon realized how mammoth it was. She’d read Schroeder’s memoir and sought her out. Theophano said, “I knew I had stumbled upon a kindred spirit. I didn’t know how easy it would end up being to work with her or how close our friendship would become.” A meeting at a Manhattan coffee shop led the Northeast Philly-born, South Jersey-raised Theophano to a collaboration that is now the first book of its kind.

Each woman comes to the project with her own experience of mental illness and queerness, which makes them uniquely open to the breadth of LGBTQ experiences with mental health conditions and the system. Schroeder told PGN that devastating mental health conditions could crush people financially in addition to unmooring them within their own lives. Her essay in the book is about how very hard — and expensive — it is to access medication for bipolar disorder. The costs of mental illness for LGBTQ people, she explained, can be insurmountable and even lead to homelessness.

Schroeder said that LGBTQ people seek out different means of support through the community because the mental health system can be so unwelcoming. “This is the underground economy of trading meds, procuring meds, helping each other out, listening, trying not to call EMS on people because they will end up in jail — it’s a wide range of things,” she explained.

“Monetizing mental health is something we have to deal with and find ways around,” Schroeder added.

Theophano talked about how personal — and life-altering — these experiences can be. “I witnessed my partner’s suicide when I was 35,” she explained. Her entry in the book is gut-wrenching.

But it’s not the only personal piece for her. “Headcase” has a compelling entry on LGBTQ vets accessing mental health care within the system. Theophano said her Vietnam-vet father living in Philadelphia made her more aware of the issues veterans face.

Theophano and Schroeder have brought their worldview into the project in a broad and highly inclusive way. Theophano both speaks of and writes about how essential it is for LGBTQ people to be able to access the help they need to save their own lives. “I’ve been quite open about dealing with depression and anxiety myself.”

Theophano added, “I love direct client work.” She said there is “embedded trauma” that LGBTQ people carry related to being ostracized and demonized by society — an aspect of LGBTQ mental health she wanted to be sure was addressed in the collection.

Crucial to both women was amplifying the voices of marginalized people. Schroeder said LGBTQ people with mental illness are often pushed to the “lowest rung” of society, “facing barrier after barrier to getting help, to getting well.” She said the threats to LGBTQ people with mental illness are manifold and costly on many levels, making it hard to stabilize one’s life.

“Headcase” doesn’t tell the story of LGBTQ people with mental health conditions; it allows those people to tell their stories and detail their experiences. The book explores the various obstacles mental illness presents — especially for those most at the margins, like queer and trans people of color. 

“People are trying to survive,” Schroeder said, simply.

Theophano and Schroeder have compiled a testimony to LGBTQ survival in their new book — everyone should have this book in their library.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.