“Perhaps that’s another reason why they kept quiet” – the capacity of professionals to relate to young LGBTIQ people and take diversity into account in mental health and substance abuse services

Noora Hästbacka & Inka Sirén


The research report is based on the Young LGBTIQ people in mental health and substance abuse services (2015–2017) project, which is a joint venture of the Finnish Youth Research Society, Seta and the Finnish Association for Substance Abuse Prevention EHYT. The project is funded by the Ministry of Education and Culture. The capacity of mental health and substance abuse professionals to relate to young people in sexual and gender minorities is investigated in the study. The data for the study, which examines the operations, problem areas and good practices of mental health and substance abuse services, comprises the accounts of professionals providing the services. The goal is to improve the status of young LGBTIQ people as users of mental health and substance abuse services and to improve the equality of the people using the services. The study was conducted by the Finnish Youth Research Network.

Interviews were conducted with 29 professionals working in mental and substance abuse services, for example registered nurses, psychologists and social services employees. Additionally, data was collected with an anonymous online survey, to which 113 professionals from around Finland responded. In addition, three workshops were organised, in which professionals and young LGBTIQ people presented ideas and suggestions for improvement and good practices for the services.

The study employs a broad definition of mental and substance abuse services: it includes various activities, from preventative services to psychiatric care and substance abuse treatment provided in specialised medical care. Regardless of the nature of the service, the professionals consider it generally important that the diversity of gender and sexual orientation is taken into account in the services. However, according to the research data, there is still room for development in this area. There is great variation in the way diversity is taken into account, and there are hardly any general guidelines or practices to ensure that individuals are treated equally.

According to the study, the competence of professionals is lacking in certain areas regarding diversity. This may pose an obstacle when working with young LGBTIQ persons and prevent the professionals from understanding the young people’s experiences. The professionals do not have sufficient knowledge of the significance that belonging to a sexual or gender minority may have in a young person’s life. The professionals often find it challenging to bring up the subject naturally in conversation, or the subject may not be considered relevant to the work.

Many professionals emphasise the individuality and similarity of young people as the starting point for the work. However, issues related to sexual orientation and gender are frequently ignored. In the services, the professionals often fail to identify the norms, assumptions and discrimination concerning gender and sexual orientation and their impact on mental health and substance abuse.

In order to develop professional skills, increase knowledge and create good practices to promote equality, active measures are needed in the form of training, in the work communities and professions and in the provision of services.

Keywords: young people, sexual minorities, gender minorities, diversity, services, substance abuse work, mental health services, professional skill, equality, equal opportunity