Published: 17/02/2005, Volume II5, No. 5943 Page 24 25

Dr Justin Varney, National Institute for Mental Health in England sexual orientation special interest group; specialist registrar in public health, Greenwich primary care trust

Mental health and homosexuality have an interesting history, which in some ways has many similarities.

Both have carried significant stigma and social exclusion, and in recent years progressive campaigning by community action groups has helped reduce this for both groups.

February is the first UK-wide Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History Month. It marks a visible commitment to acknowledge and value the contribution lesbians and gay men have made to society.

The National Institute for Mental Health in England has established a special interest group on sexual orientation to raise the profile of lesbian and gay issues in mental health. In its first year it has commissioned a large meta-analysis and literature review of the work around suicide and self harm in lesbians and gay men. Working with NIMHE work programme leads and the Department of Health, it hopes to move forward with a national lesbian and gay mental health network.

It is an interesting challenge to promote what should be just as valid a cause as that of black and minority and disabled communities, yet a lack of census data and difficulties with monitoring has left many trusts reluctant to act. The sexual orientation special interest group with the DoH and other professional groups and unions hope to develop guidelines on both the way the question could be asked of staff and patients and the groundwork that needs to be done before such questions can be safely employed.

Several NHS trusts have started to apply the lessons learnt from the application of the Race Relations (amendment) Act 2000, which focused many organisations on their obligations on monitoring ethnicity.

Staff networks are being established and patient support groups are developing from community groups.

Lesbian and Gay History Month offers an opportunity to highlight good practice guidelines from organisations such as PACE, review diversity strategies to see that sexual orientation is as key to them as any other strand and engage with clients and staff to see how the experience for lesbian and gay patients and professionals can be improved.