LGBTQ Support Group Starts at the Petaluma Health Center

This past year has marked the start of many new innovative programs at the Petaluma Health Center, including new projects to ensure comprehensive and affirming care to our LGBTQ community. As a prominent feature of this initiative, PHC has launched a new LGBTQ Support Group open to the entire community. This peer-led group is designed to help people who are questioning their sexuality or gender and those who experience anxiety around their identity as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, or other places along the spectrum, by building a vibrant and supportive community here in Petaluma. Our group is now the only LGBTQ support group in Petaluma, and it is also the only LGBTQ support group open to adults in all of Sonoma County.

At the beginning of October, our clinicâs medical director, Dr. Danielle Oryn, approached me with the possibility of starting a group after hearing lots of demand from patients and providers who wanted to see something like this in our community. I remember coming out for the first time when I was in eighth grade after some encouragement from my therapist, and I remember both the denial and dismissiveness I received from my mother, as well as the warm support and encouragement I received from my friends. I am grateful for how lucky I was to grow up in a diverse and welcoming community out in the Washington, DC area, where even my pastor in church was an out lesbian, giving me the courage to grow into the self I wanted to be. I am doubly grateful to have been blessed with the economic stability and privileges that could allow such self-awareness to blossom into self-actualization. When I heard about the demand for a support group here in our clinic, I knew immediately that I had an opportunity to impact the lives of LGBTQ people in our community who had never received such support.

Since the end of October, I have been developing, organizing, and facilitating our clinicâs once weekly group meetings, while also mentoring LGBTQ youth at another support group in Santa Rosa and doing some phone peer-counseling to community members with transportation issues. The stories I have heard and the people I have met since I began this project- from a fifteen year-old student kicked out of his home to a fifty year old man only now coming out and unsure how to explain it to his kids -I have been reminded time and again how much work remains in order for LGBTQ people to feel they are valued and supported members of our community.

I am proud and inspired that our health center recognizes the importance of this crucial work and is demonstrating its desire to take it on. The Petaluma Health Center recognizes that LGBTQ people are members of every community. They are diverse, come from all walks of life, and include people of all races and ethnicities, all ages, all socioeconomic statuses, and from all parts of the country. As we reported to our staff and providers when announcing this new project, the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association (GLMA) predicts that 5 to 10 percent of any clinicâs patient population is probably gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and another 1 percent may be transsexual. More importantly, since many people are not out with their providers, thereâs a good chance we do not even know who these patients are.

Furthermore, as LGBTQ people are more likely to face barriers and discrimination in employment, education, and even housing, they are more likely to be homeless and more likely to be uninsured. As a Federally Qualified Health Center that aims to serve the underserved, we know that this is a group that we are responsible for, and we are ready to step up to the challenge.

Offering this group gives PHC the opportunity to provide critical care to patients and promote wellness in our community. Studies have shown that the LGBTQ community has a much higher rate of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, due to the social stigma and fear of violence that they face. The LGBTQ community, particularly youth, engage in health risk behaviors such as smoking and substance use at a greater rate. The LGBTQ community is also at a greater risk of body image and eating disorders, while the lesbian community is also at a higher risk of obesity, and breast cancer. Finally, since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the LGBTQ community continues to have some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the country.

This group is one of our big steps towards trying to solve these health disparities. The support group discusses the social and economic factors that trigger these issues in the LGBTQ community by allowing people to share their experiences of how these issues have arisen in their own lives. We also work collectively to build skills to cope with the psychosocial stressors of living with stigma and threat of violence, as these higher rates of psychiatric conditions and related issues are likely due to the social stigma and victimization faced by sexual minorities.

However, the group is not a therapy group, and no therapist is present in the room. Instead, the project is designed to build peer support and consciousness-raising through the sharing of experiences to build self-worth, self-confidence, self-acceptance, and community. Studies have shown that more frequent mental health issues arise among LGBTQ people who self-reported greater levels of perceived stigmatization or discrimination because of their sexual orientation, and those who felt they had to conceal their identity, or those who could not affiliate with other LGBTQ community members. By coming together weekly, we are able to unpack our traumas, and heal collectively.

Working to reduce the anxiety people experience around being LGBTQ could not only reduce their mental health issues and related behavioral coping issues such as tobacco use and addiction, but it could also help prevent physical illnesses ranging from the flu to cancer, which we know are influenced by stress in the body. Moreover, according to a publication by the American Psychological Association, ãthe experience of homophobia and heterosexism within the health care system is related to avoidance of routine health care screenings.ä This support group is an integral part of several other steps the clinic is taking in order to let people know this is friendly, safe, and affirming community. If this group can successfully improve access to the clinic and reduce perceptions of homophobia in medicine, we may be able to increase participantsâ likelihood to get recommended testing and treatment, and improve their long-term health outcomes.

As I sat in the youth group meeting a couple of weeks back, and I listened to the story of a young woman wrestling in self-doubt and anxiety, self-harming and contemplating suicide, I saw myself eight years younger, sitting in her chair. For the first time, I understood and saw clearly the immense transformation that I have been lucky enough to go through, and I remembered the number of people who have supported me through this transformation. I felt the strength I now have in my own identity, my own body, my own love. And so I reached out to her afterwards, and I told her that I cared about her.

Because at the end of the day, medicine is about care. It is about showing our compassion for others. From expanding access to low-cost treatments, to providing high-quality Spanish-language medical care, the Petaluma Health Center recognizes that all members of our community are valuable and deserving of care, irrespective of their income, their race, their gender, or the gender of the person they love.

With our support group now entering its third month and second calendar year, I am proud to be a part of this dynamic, innovative clinic, now one step closer to providing high quality healthcare for all.

About the Group:
The LGBTQ Support Group meets Mondays from 5:30 to 6:30pm in the Serenity Room of the Petaluma Health Center, located at 1179 N McDowell Blvd, Petaluma, CA 94954.
For more information, please call Vanessa Raditz at 707-559-7695, or email at vanessar@phealthcenter.org

About the Author:
Vanessa Raditz is an AmeriCorps Health Navigator at the Petaluma Health Center. With four years experience as a peer health educator and counselor, Vanessa has worked in groups and one on one with people to help them navigate their mental and physical health. She self-identifies as queer and has been trained in LGBTQ issues, adding to her general experience in group therapy settings and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. She holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in Neuroscience from Smith College.