Creating Context: LGBT Health Finds A New Home

By Bobbie Berkowitz, Dean, Columbia University School of Nursing

August 5, 2014

When President Obama, during his Second Inaugural Address, reaffirmed our nation’s founding principles of tolerance and equality by invoking “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall” and by aligning his administration with equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens, it became a milestone marking the latest advance for LGBT Americans to be recognized across society.

The lead-up to this moment had many precursors, including the 2011 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report on the health of LGBT people. The 17-member Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health Issues and Research Gaps and Opportunities consisted of experts across a wide-range of disciplines. I had the privilege of serving on the Committee and helped prepare a set of recommendations, one of the most notable being the implementation of a research agenda to assist the National Institutes of Health gain a more complete understanding of LGBT health.

For its part, Columbia Nursing is participating in a number of activities to fight stigma and promote resilience among LGBT people. Last fall, we welcomed Walter O. Bockting, Ph.D to our faculty, an internationally known researcher and psychologist who will work with us and with Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to advance the understanding of sex and gender identity development and to improve the quality of life for transgender people.

Dr. Bockting (who also served on the IOM committee) was named co-director of the LGBT Health Initiative, which was formally established earlier this month. This new program housed at the Columbia University Medical Center brings together research, clinical care, education and policy experts to improve the health of LGBT individuals. Dr. Bockting is joined by the Initiative’s director, Anke A. Ehrhardt, Ph.D., who is also Director of the Division of Gender, Sexuality, and Health at the NYS Psychiatric Institute and the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.

One of the goals of the Initiative is to create a body of knowledge to help guide progress in access to care and improved quality of life and well-being for LGBT people. For example, research by Dr. Bockting, published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, shows that the stigma associated with being transgender is linked to psychological distress, contributing to disproportionate rates of depression and anxiety found among this population. The research went further to show that family support and pride in transgender identity can provide lower levels of psychological stress, and that peer support from other transgender people buffered the negative impact of stigma.

Another research milestone is the announcement of the first peer-reviewed journal, LGBT Health, launching in fall 2013, whose aim is to identify crucial LGBT healthcare needs and provide an authoritative source in all areas pertinent to LGBT health and healthcare services. I have been asked to join a group of multidisciplinary experts from around the world to help guide the selection of the scholarly articles as a member of the journal’s editorial board.

Efforts across many sectors of society are gaining momentum to provide LGBT people with greater equality. As part of Columbia University Medical Center, our School is making an indispensable contribution to not only help create a climate of acceptance, but also ensure the health, well-being, and peace-of-mind for LGBT individuals, their families, and communities.

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