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Gay sex law raises mental health fears

New Delhi, Dec. 14: The 153-year-old law that criminalises gay sex is likely contributing to hidden depression and possibly even substance abuse among homosexuals, mental health professionals campaigning for its repeal have said.

The experts have said the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this week re-criminalising gay sex could lead to a surge in depression levels across the community. They have cited international studies that point to higher levels of mental health problems among gay men.

Overturning a Delhi High Court ruling of July 2009, the Supreme Court upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that criminalises gay sex while suggesting the law may be amended through the legislative process.

“It can be mentally devastating to find that the law condemns an aspect of identity so basic to them,” said Shalini John, a clinical psychologist in New Delhi who has worked with gay people. “It can be extremely stressful and may push some towards clinical depression.”

Psychiatrists say medical studies in Europe and North America have consistently indicated that non-heterosexual people are at a higher risk of mental disorders, including depression, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.

Susan Cochran, a psychologist-epidemiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that members of sexual minorities are twice as likely to seek help for mental health issues as heterosexual people.

In a study published four years ago in the journal BMC Psychiatry, Cochran and her colleagues documented that among some 2,000 people surveyed, 48 per cent of gay, lesbian or bisexual individuals reported seeking mental health treatment compared to 22 per cent of heterosexual people.

“The suffering starts early, even during adolescence,” said Jen Wang, a Chinese-American psychiatric-epidemiologist at the University of Zurich. Wang and his colleagues have shown that even adolescent sexual minorities have higher levels of depression and anxiety than heterosexual adolescents.

A law that criminalises gay sex, Wang told The Telegraph, may be seen as a codification of a social stigma that exists across societies. “Even if the law were not there, discrimination and social stigma could continue to cause suffering to members of sexual minorities.”

Mental health experts say members of the gay community who have not yet articulated their sexual orientation are likely to be particularly vulnerable to depression in contrast to those who have been actively campaigning for change and have found peer solidarity and support.

“Many live under severe stress and tension, still reluctant to communicate with their families,” said Shyam Khanna, a senior consultant psychiatrist in Mumbai, who says he has seen such stress contribute to substance-abuse problems.

“Families often worry about social boycott and impose intense pressure on gay people to get married. The stress from such pressures on individuals can be traumatising and can push some people towards alcohol abuse or drug abuse.”

Gay rights activists have expressed their determination to continue to campaign against Section 377, saying criminalising gay sex between two consenting adults is tantamount to a human rights violation.

“Whether through a court or through an amendment to the legislation, the law will have to change,” said Alok Sarin, a senior consultant psychiatrist in New Delhi, who is among medical professionals helping the petitioners campaigning against Section 377.

Experts say the experiences and struggles of gay people in relationships can be similar to what heterosexual couples experience.

“The romantic and emotional bonds,” John said, “are as strong between gay couples as between heterosexual couples.”