What You Need To Know About The 'Harm' In The Plebiscite Debate

A counsellor reveals just how destructive it can be.

04/10/2016 3:46 PM AEDT | Updated 05/10/2016 1:12 PM AEDT
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Hate speech can still take its toll.

As Labor prepares to formalise its position for or against the marriage equality plebiscite next week, mental health groups and LGBTI advocates are pleading with the Turnbull Government to scrap it altogether, citing the same argument: harm.

The hate speech deriving out of such a debate -- surrounding whether the LGBTI community deserves the right to marry, too -- has been deemed destructive and harmful to LGBTI Aussies.

So before our politicians debate whether the plebiscite bill should be passed to allow Australians to vote on same-sex marriage, let's take a look at what the 'harm' actually is, and who has the potential to be most harmed by debate surrounding the plebiscite.

The Huffington Post Australia spoke to psychologist Paul Martin, who has been a practicing psychologist and counsellor to LGBTI people with mental health issues for decades.

Statistics show LGBTI Australians have the highest rates of suicide in the country, while they're twice as likely to experience anxiety and three times more likely to develop depression.

Martin said he has seen "elevated levels of suicidality, depression and anxiety that shows this debate has already caused untold damage."

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Martin said Aussies can help protect LGBTI Australians by speaking up against hateful dialogue.

How is 'harm' exactly caused by the debate surrounding the plebiscite, and what is the extent of the damage?

The important factor to remember as the debate grows around marriage equality is many Aussies in the LGBTI community have already had internal and external issues after 'coming out' and before coming out.

Internally, 'concealable stigma' can develop when LGBTI Australians hear gay, lesbian or transgender people spoken about in a negative context, Martin said.

For young people, this could be overhearing a parent or friend and for older people this may stem from living in an era where homosexuality was a considered a crime.

"What happens is, as that person is coming to terms with their orientation and they hear those things, it gives them further evidence that they will be rejected and seen as defective by the people they love the most," Martin told HuffPost Australia.

Some LGBTI Australians can also experience 'minority stress' from hearing negative comments about their sexual orientation from others in the community, whether that is made by another parent at school, a teacher or a family member, which consequently makes them feel ostracised.

"So there are internal and external -- very powerful -- forces that for some people result in a psychological vulnerability," Martin said.

"And there's this chronic stress which can develop as well."

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The destructive debate can bring up past traumas for LGBTI Australians.

On top of the psychological vulnerability which can be reignited by a debate around LGBTI Australians' right to marry, the hate speech from the 'against' camp can prompt previously silent homophobic Australians to feel comfortable condemning LGBTI Aussies, increasing the intensity of hate speech. This increases the harmful impact on those most vulnerable.

"Having seen thousands of people from LGBTI communities over a few decades, when you hear negative things being spoken about you, about your family, about your kids, if you've already got psychological damage what happens is it activates or triggers a lot of that psychological damage again," Martin said.

So for many LGBTI Aussies who have moved forward in their lives after coming out, the debate can rewind the progress they've made in combating past trauma.

This can result in an increased risk of suicide, self harm and create another barrier for Aussies contemplating 'coming out'.

Who will be most harmed by the debate?

Young people in the LGBTI community are particularly vulnerable with statistics showing they are five times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth. The likelihood is proven to increase in young people who experience harassment or abuse.

Martin said devisive debates, such as that around the plebiscite and the safe schools program, can increase LGBTI Australians' levels of anxiety, depression, social exclusion and shame. But for young people who are still going through the motions of 'coming out', such debates can be particularly destructive.

"At that extremely vulnerable time of pre, during and post 'coming out' when they also hear Christian leaders on the television say homophobic things or put their family down or they receive a pamphlet in the post -- when you're exposed to that -- that's when it's most likely to confirm that sense that you are defective, prompting hopelessness and shame," Martin said.

"Shame is a huge motivator for many people in terms of suicidality."

"It confirms a pre-existing belief system that's very damaged"Paul Martin

When former Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she was not in favour of marriage equality in 2012, Martin treated a patient who had attempted suicide following the comment.

"What happened for him is it actually confirmed all the things that he believed about himself to be true -- that being in a loving family with kids or just having a nice relationship is actually not possible," Martin said.

"It confirms a pre-existing belief system that's very damaged... That they are defective, they are disordered, they are sinful."

What is the significance of the plebiscite and is there a less harmful option?

The plebiscite, which will be held on February 11 if passed by Parliament, will allow Australians to vote for or against same-sex marriage and will allow the debate to dominate public discourse for four months.

However, a plebiscite does not guarantee legislative change.

Despite the plebiscite costing $170 million, it is merely a poll to indicate the views of Australians to politicians. Politicians are not bound to the plebiscite and will then have a vote in Parliament.

"The longer this is dragged out, the more as a society we are damaging some of the most vulnerable people in Australia. And we are risking elevated levels of suicide in our young people as well."Paul Martin

A referendum creates legislative change from the people's vote and is another option (although, still expensive).

The option most advocates and groups in the LGBTI community are supporting is a free conscience vote in parliament. It is not expensive and will avoid a four-month debate, which could potentially harm some in the LGBTI community.

Martin said a conscience vote is the only way forward from a "mental health perspective".

"The longer this is dragged out, the more as a society we are damaging some of the most vulnerable people in Australia. And we are risking elevated levels of suicide in our young people as well."

If the plebiscite bill is voted down on Wednesday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said a parliamentary vote is out of the question and Australia will have to wait until the next election before marriage equality becomes a reality Down Under.

Time will tell.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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