Some 50 mental health professionals in San Luis Obispo County will be trained to provide LGBTQ-affirming services, thanks to a $520,000 grant recently awarded to a Cal Poly psychology professor.
The SLO ACCEPTance Project intends to improve services to local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning community members by providing local mental healthcare professionals with nine months of intensive training.
The project will be funded for four years by county allocations of the Mental Health Services Act, a one-percent tax on individual’s income in excess of one million dollars that voters approved in 2004 to expand county mental health services.
The need for increased therapeutic services for the LGBTQ+ community by trained professionals is dire in rural areas, including SLO County, according to Cal Poly professor Jay Bettergarcia, lead investigator for the project along with QCARES, the Queer Community Action, Research, Education and Support team.
A striking example of the need: Half of local LGBTQ youth surveyed in 2014 and 2019 reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous 12 months.
Further, another survey in 2003 found that some barriers to LGBTQ community members seeking mental health care services included fear of being mistreated by local providers and an insufficient number of services.
What does ‘LGBTQ-affirming’ mean?
At the most basic level, LGBTQ-affirming therapeutic services support an individual’s sexuality or gender identity without trying to change them. But it’s also a lot more.
“Affirming services include accepting and valuing that people’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity are true, valued, and important aspects of a persons identity,” said Bettergarcia, who identifies as trans and non-binary.
That can be as simple as using the right name and pronouns with trans and non-binary people and not assuming someone’s sexual orientation to be straight, Bettergarcia said.
It also requires the therapists to understand their own biases and stereotypes and have knowledge about the process of coming out, the role of stigma and discrimination and the process of social and medical transition for transgender and non-binary folks.
“There are so many things that therapists can do to help LGBTQ people feel valued, real, whole, and seen, but it starts with therapists having the knowledge, awareness, and skills to be able to do this work well,” Bettergarcia said.
What is SLO ACCEPTance?
The SLO ACCEPTance Project (Affirming Cultural Competence Education and Provider Training) is a collaboration involving Bettergarcia and expert researchers, therapists and trainers across California, along with Cal Poly graduate student Elissa Feld, recent Cal Poly graduates Emma Wedell and Amanda Shrewsbury and several Cal Poly student researcher assistants.
Ultimately, Bettergarcia said, the goal of the SLO ACCEPTance Project is for LGBTQ community members to feel more comfortable seeking mental health services, especially those who are low-income or without health insurance.