Penn State researcher explores mental health and the LGBT community

With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, Penn State researcher and assistant professor Britney Wardecker stresses the importance of not only raising general awareness of mental health but also recognizing how different groups are affected by mental health issues in unique ways.  

Wardecker’s research focuses on the intersection of mental health and discrimination against the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender) community.

After receiving a bachelor of science in psychology at Penn State, Wardecker continued her education at the University of Michigan to obtain her doctorate in psychology, before coming back to Penn State as a National Institute on Aging (NIA) Postdoctoral Fellow, researcher and assistant professor in the College of Nursing.

As a postdoctoral fellow in the University’s Center for Healthy Aging she expanded her expertise with aging and the effects of psychological stress and stress responses on physical health.

“It was a way for me to gain experience in understanding what stress is and how stress links to health,” Wardecker said. “It also led to me gaining experience in LGBT health and aging.”

Today, through her research Wardecker has discovered that members of the LGBT community are at an increased risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, compared to non-LGBT individuals.

In her findings, LGBT people are also more reluctant to go seek medical help for mental health because of experiences in the past with health institutions and discrimination.

The history of mental health care in the U.S. has especially affected older LGBT people who have seen all the stages of discrimination, which may lead to an actual fear of medical facilities. They are also afraid of being discriminated against or stigmatized again, said Wardecker.

“For older LGBT people, the AIDS/HIV crisis has affected their trust in getting help,” Wardecker said. “And not that long-ago, being LGBT or having an LGBT identity was considered a form of mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).”

Due to this fear of reaching out, mental-health problems are less likely to get treated for members of the LGBT community, said Wardecker.

Another part of Wardecker’s research has compared life satisfaction between LGB people and heterosexual people. She found that over a period of 20 years, LGB people had lower life-satisfaction compared to heterosexual people.

“Life satisfaction [in her research] was composed of various factors of life,” Wardecker said. “Some of these factors were happiness with your workplace, happiness with your health, happiness with your life in general, and many more.”

Wardecker also found that bisexual people had the lowest life-satisfaction of the sexual minority groups. She attributes this finding to their minority status within the overall minority group, as they tend to face a lot of in-group discrimination.

For these reasons, Wardecker stresses the importance of people recognizing that different groups have different identities that affect factors such as mental health and life-satisfaction.

“The experience of a black lesbian is going to be very different than the experience of a white lesbian,” Wardecker said. “Or an older black lesbian is going to have a very different experience than a younger black lesbian.”

Therefore, Wardecker wants people not only to become aware of the stigma of mental health but more importantly become aware of the different groups uniquely affected and more at-risk for mental health issues, such as the LGBT community.

Some actions have already been taken to help identify the needs of different groups in Pennsylvania. Wardecker is part of a new commission called the LGBT Aging Work Group, which is supported by Gov. Tom Wolf, the Pennsylvania Department of Aging, and other LGBT aging advocates in Pennsylvania.

This new commission directly reports to the governor on LGBT-aging issues and other problems faced by LGBT individuals. The first summit of the commission took place last year, directed by Wolf.

“The goal is that we can use research that comes out of Penn State to tell the governor where the issues are, where the money should be allotted, areas in Pennsylvania we should be attending to,” Wardecker said. “And really just understanding in all different parts of Pennsylvania, what are the unique struggles that are faced by older LGBT people in the different counties.”

Wardecker points out that Pennsylvania has areas that are very rural, which might not have the same resources for LGBT people compared to resources found in more urban areas.

Penn State has Commonwealth Campuses in all different types of areas in Pennsylvania which allows research to be connected and done in all of these places.

“We are incredibly lucky that the Wolf Administration has recognized the LGBT community and has specifically prioritized unique challenges faced by LGBT adults,” Wardecker said.

In addition to this commission, Wardecker is also on the steering committee for a sexual, gender, and minority research interest group at Penn State. All members are University professors, ranging from the fields of psychology to women’s studies; the goal of the group is to champion LGBT research and LGBT rights on campus.

Wardecker urges non-members of the LGBT community to take interest in her research.

“Increasing awareness of one vulnerable group helps to shed light on other vulnerable groups,” Wardecker said. “I think that when you get people to care about LGBT issues, they are also more likely to care about other social issues we have around campus.”

Working in the College of Nursing, Wardecker plans on using the research she has done to create social action for healthcare providers.

“I am applying my psychology expertise to healthcare settings to understand what it looks like to be a nurse, understand what it looks like to be an LGBT patient, and then bringing the two together to create an experience that is very positive for both parties,” Wardecker said.

She has already begun to brainstorm ideas on how she can help to change the healthcare settings to be more inclusive to LGBT people, such as having health-care providers wear a rainbow ribbon, or other initiatives that will make LGBT community members feel more accepted and comfortable with their surroundings..

“It is really easy to sit here and have research ideas and thoughts, but at the end of the day I would really like to make social change and actually implement my research findings to make LGBT people’s lives better,” Wardecker said.