Most of us have a “story” — or more than one — that defines how we see ourselves and many choices we make, psychologists say. Some groups or demographics in our society have their stories, too.
Sometimes those stories are bad for our health.
That’s the belief behind a goal to create “a new narrative” among people in Minnesota’s LGBT community aimed at helping them kick the habit, says Loretta Worthington, director of programs for Rainbow Health Initiative, an organization working to increase health of the LGBT community. The effort will roll out Nov. 18 as part of the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smoke-Out. Its emphasis: accentuating the positive.
“A lot of people care about healthy living,” Worthington says of gays in Minnesota. Many of them are exercising regularly, eating smart, choosing restaurants with healthful options and consciously modeling healthy habits for their children. And many are tobacco-free.
“But that’s not the usual story that gets out there,” she says. What draws attention more often, she says, are such negatives as higher smoking, drinking and suicide rates than in the general population. In regard to tobacco use, gay men smoke at “strikingly higher” rates than other men. And almost 40 per cent of lesbian and bisexual girls ages 12 to 17 in an ongoing survey reported smoking weekly, compared with 6 percent of heterosexual girls, according to results published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine’s April issue.
A picture of health
Rainbow Health Initiative and MN Tobacco-free Lavender Communities, both Twin Cities-based organizations, are backing the effort to change statistics like those and the “story” they perpetuate. Their approach: to show rather than tell. As they gear up for the Gay American Smoke-Out in conjunction with the larger smoke-out event, they invite people in the LGBT community to submit photos of themselves depicting healthy living to a photo contest. It’s called Living Tobacco-free LGBT: A Picture of Health. Winners will receive prizes from $500 to $25. More information is here. www.MNTLC.org. Click on the photo contest page, which also offers photography tips. Winning entries will be featured on the site. All photos submitted may be published, Worthington says.
Plans include creating a calendar featuring winning photographs, and the collection will be on display at the annual Twin Cities Pride Festival in June 2009. Along with raising awareness of how tobacco use affects the LGBT community, the hope is to “change the narrative” by emphasizing healthy lifestyles many LGBT people reflect.
Birth of a new story
Bharati Acharya, a psychologist in Minneapolis, says that approach to altering a group’s self-identity derives from narrative therapy, an approach to psychological counseling that involves reshaping one’s personal story. In reality, individuals and groups “are multi-storied,” says Acharya, who has studied with narrative therapy’s founder. New stories do appear, she says, such as the sense of possibility for black Americans that Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president represents. The problem with “stories” in our culture often comes when people internalize misconstrued information, stereotypes and psycho-social factors to create negative “stories” that are psychologically damaging. And people in groups that are marginalized in society can be particularly vulnerable.
Sometimes people “mistakenly internalize those discourses as though they speak the truth about our lives” when they do not, she says. While people can’t change what has happened to them, “we can change what we do with it,” she says. And individuals can “change the meaning of it” for themselves.
“Young LGBT people grow up saturated with images that are negative,” she says. The LGBT photo contest is an effort “to create a visual image about being healthy and LGBT that are not mutually exclusive.”