Happy Pride Month! As rainbow flags fly and clothing store shelves are stocked with Pride apparel this month, we must acknowledge that LGBTQ+ lives are disproportionately affected by human trafficking and exploitation all year-round. We know that LGBTQ+ individuals face a higher risk of becoming victims of human trafficking compared to their straight, cisgender peers. Disproportionately impacted by family rejection, homelessness, mental health access, and substance use, LGBTQ+ individuals – especially youth – face a much higher risk of experiencing exploitation. So we sat down with one of our key partners, Envision:You, to hear what they are doing to serve the LGBTQ+ community. Keep reading for our interview with Envision:You CEO, Steven Haden.
Tell us about Envision:You. How are you addressing the mental and behavioral health inequities experienced by the LGBTQ+ community?
Envision:You is a Denver-based nonprofit that seeks to close gaps in behavioral health outcomes for LGBTQ+ individuals through co-created community programming, advocacy engagement, public awareness campaigns, and evidence-based training. Our vision is a world that provides affirming and universally accessible care for those who seek it and supports the values and experiences of a diverse LGBTQ+ community with outcomes equal to those of their heterosexual and cisgender peers. A specific example of the programs and initiatives we have launched to address LGBTQ+ behavioral health disparities is You:Flourish, a smartphone application that helps users find vetted and affirming providers and resources, build peer networks with shared identities and lived experiences, and experience wellness content created by and for the LGBTQ+ community.
Why are you personally involved and invested in this work?
As a therapist with my own complicated mental health journey, including a substance use disorder and suicidality, I founded Envision:You because I experienced firsthand the disproportionate challenges that LGBTQ+ individuals face when navigating a society not built for them and accessing affirming mental health care and social support systems. I am a person with significant privilege, with my queerness being my primary marginalized identity, and we know at Envision:You that each additional marginalized identity — whether that be gender or gender identity, race or ethnicity, living in rural communities, non-Christian religions, non-English first languages, age, or lack of access to capital — increases the likelihood that an LGBTQ+ person will not be able to access the affirming health and wellness care that they need to thrive. Our community is suffering greater rates of anxiety and depression, loneliness and isolation, homelessness, poor health outcomes… and it does not have to be that way.
“Our community is suffering greater rates of anxiety and depression, loneliness and isolation, homelessness, poor health outcomes… and it does not have to be that way.”
— Steven Haden, CEO of Envision:You
When did you become familiar with the issue of human trafficking? Would you describe individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ as being at greater risk of exploitation and ultimately human trafficking?
I had an awareness of the prevalence of human trafficking in Colorado as well as its impact on the LGBTQ+ community, but it was not until a presentation from the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking that I fully understood the magnitude of the issue and long-term consequences. I absolutely would say that the primary levers putting LGBTQ+ individuals at higher risk of exploitation and human trafficking are disproportionately higher rates of housing insecurity, substance misuse and severe mental illness, and lack of a supportive and affirming family structure. While self-reported LGBTQ+ individuals comprise less than 10% of the overall population, they account for up to 40% of the runaway and homeless youth population, and those large numbers are almost entirely contributable to family rejection. LGBTQ+ adults are also disproportionately affected by homelessness — sexual minority adults are twice as likely to experience homelessness in their lifetime, and rates for transgender and gender-expansive individuals are even higher. Once on the streets, those individuals are much more likely to develop or exacerbate substance use disorders, have negative experiences with law enforcement, and turn to sex work for survival. All of these interrelated circumstances increase overall vulnerability to exploitative systems and are precursors to human trafficking.
How has the pandemic affected some of these challenges?
In some ways, the pandemic has illuminated challenges that have existed for quite some time pre-COVID. Behavioral health inequities have always been a problem, particularly for LGBTQ+ people, people of color, the unhoused population, folks living in rural or mountain communities, and those living near or below the poverty line. Their communities have always known that, and COVID-19 shone a very harsh light on the brokenness, disaggregation, and overall shortages of our healthcare system. While there is still so much work to do, and while no one in the behavioral healthcare field is glad that the pandemic occurred and is still occurring, it did help to unearth inequities in a broader way, and we are glad to see long-overdue resources and funding flow into the system. That being said, the pandemic definitely had some negative impacts, including further deepening the behavioral healthcare staff shortage, rising numbers in the unhoused population due to financial insecurity, and increased substance misuse.
How does Envision:You work with the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking and support community partners serving LGBTQ+ survivors?
The majority of Envision:You’s work would decrease the impact of human trafficking both upstream and downstream from trafficking itself. Our mission and programs are designed to build more positive, supporting, and affirming behavioral health systems for LGBTQ+ individuals through policy, advocacy, training, and community programs. Our peer support and anti-stigma campaigns help to create environments for LGBTQ+ people that will decrease the likelihood and severity of circumstances that are precursors to human trafficking, such as homelessness, lack of family support, substance misuse, and mental health concerns. Our policy efforts and trainings help to create affirming safety networks for LGBTQ+ people seeking behavioral health treatment.
“We know that a behavioral health encounter that makes someone feel unsafe or unseen, or even creates additional trauma, radically reduces a person’s likelihood of seeking help again. For survivors of human trafficking, or those experiencing the precursors of human trafficking, that risk is too high to take.”
— Steven Haden, CEO of Envision:You
What are ways to support your community? How can individuals who are passionate about this cause take action?
For those with resources, we would invite folks to contribute to Envision:You’s mission directly by going to www.envision-you.org and donating to our organization. You can also stop by one of Colorado’s many Pride events, and show your support in person. Envision:You will have a presence at Prides in Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Broomfield, Aurora, Grand Junction, and Boulder, as well as Black Pride and Juneteenth, and we would love to see you there! If you are passionate about using your voice to have a direct impact on behavioral health care, we are happy to point you to the Mental Health Action Toolkit, a resource that Envision:You created in partnership with One Colorado that gives specific action items that you can take with your loved ones and for your community to help fight mental health inequities — everything from talking points for engaging in difficult conversations around mental health and substance use, to quick guides on how to support affirming legislation and create anti-bullying campaigns in schools.
Every month of the year, we are committed to lifting up LGBTQ+ leaders in the anti-trafficking movement, learning about the issues, supporting survivors, and celebrating successes. Our incredible partners like Envision:You play a critical role in pursuing the end of human trafficking in Colorado. Join us!