Survey of gay, bisexual men finds high rate of mental health problems

A third of men who have sex with men reported being stared at or intimidated in past year

Almost a third of gay or bisexual men in Ireland had thoughts that they would be “better off dead” or of harming themselves in “the last two weeks”, a major study has found.

Some 29 per cent of respondents to the study said they thought they may have an alcohol dependency while 36 per cent reported being stared at or intimidated in the last 12 months, 28 per cent had been verbally insulted and 3.2 per cent had been physically attacked in the past year.

The European Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) internet survey is conducted across Europe. The Irish report has been led by the HSE to examine the health and wellbeing of the MSM population and provide data to help plan HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention and care.

In all 2,083 MSM here, living in 26 counties, responded to the 2017 survey which was published by Minister of State Catherine Byrne on Thursday.

The figures comes with some caveats, however. Psychiatrists have noted with similar, non-randomised surveys that people with mental health problems are more likely to respond compared to people who do not identify as having such problems.

HIV and STIs disproportionately affect MSM. In 2017 there were 493 HIV notifications - 10.3 per 100,000 of the population - and unprotected sex between MSM remains a key source of transmission putting the population at greater risk.

Treatments today mean a person can live a full life with the infection, with the virus rendered undetectable and untransmissable.

Some 7 per cent of respondents were living with HIV and of these the vast majority were in treatment (94 per cent) and for 97 per cent of these the virus was undetectable and untransmissable .

Mick Quinlan, manager of the Gay Health Network, said levels of knowledge about HIV and sexual health were high but raised concerns about younger MSM (under age 24) who had less knowledge and also more mental health issues and higher rates of alcohol and drug use.

“Young men are only coming out of education so one of the things we need to look at is what is happening within education. Sex education very hetero-normative and there needs to be more provided in sex education around the issues for men who have sex with men.

“The big challenge around homophobia is being able to talk about sex and being able to talk about men having sex with men, what they need, and to demystify that.”

Dr Derval Igoe, principal investigator on the study, and head of the HSE's health protection surveillance centre, stress the need to tackle stigma around HIV and expressed concern about mental health difficulties particularly for younger MSM.

“Certainly, men are reporting being stared at, verbally assaulted and physically intimidated. We have not looked at the interplay of these factors in issues like alcohol dependency and illicit drug use. We are seeing it particularly among younger MSM and a focus needs to be on the mental health and particularly young MSM.”

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Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times