Organizations that Swish May 16, 2012

A Conversation with Rischa Gottlieb on LGBTQ Healthcare

Rischa Gottleib

Rischa Gottlieb is a Ph.D. candidate in Clinical Psychology at St. John’s University, with the estimable goal of making therapy (and health care in general) more sensitive to the needs of the LGBTQ community.  One of her strategies involves getting more LGBTQ individuals to participate in research, an extremely important undertaking because health care professionals use the outcome of studies to make decisions about care. 

I was pleased to chat with Rischa about her current research and the changes she hopes it will ultimately foster in LGBTQ health services. So far over 200 women have gotten involved in this research study! If you are an LBQ woman over the age of 18 and would like to participate, click here.


Tell us a little bit about yourself!

I’ve been known to flavor my matzo ball soup with hot Haitian peppers. Seems like an odd mix but I assure you the dish is wonderful with a bit of kick to it. I start talking about my culinary inclinations because my Caribbean-Jewish heritage colors the way I move in the world, especially my kitchen.  Though I can’t say I’m very good at baking rainbow cookies, my sexuality and androgynous gender identity have also had a profound effect on the way I interact with those around me.  Moreover, these identities have inspired my work. I am truly passionate about helping minority communities obtain healthcare in a safe and comfortable environment. By focusing my research on LGBTQ communities I hope to be able to create an environment where people can receive appropriate physical and mental healthcare services.

How did you become interested in the issue of substance use and gender presentation in the LBQ community?

I worked as a direct care counselor at a community residence for people living with mental illness and addiction. One day a resident expressed his frustration that he couldn’t discuss his anxiety or his substance abuse in group therapy, because he was afraid of what would happen if his friends and housemates found out he was gay.  Essentially he was unable to obtain suitable care in that facility because he did not feel safe or comfortable discussing his sexuality and the impact it had on his life.

This encounter, along with several other experiences including my own, led me to the realization that there is a dearth of appropriate care available to members of the LGBTQ community. This is why I am so passionate about providing quality health services to my community.

I believe that appropriate care is compassionate to a person’s experiences, open to a client’s perspective and knowledgeable about how to effectively address problems. I see research into substance use and gender presentation in lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women (transgender inclusive) as contributing to clinician knowledge about the LGBT community.

What moved you to undertake this study? Were you inspired by a particular individual or trend that you were observing in the community?

Well, they say that research is “me-search!” I wanted to do something that would have a positive impact on a community I love and belong to, particularly because there are so few researchers who are looking into ways to better know and serve LGBTQ communities.

I started this particular study because LGBTQ persons use substances more frequently than their heterosexual counterparts, so I know that this is an area that has a strong impact on their lives. Moreover, investigating the impact of gender is important to me because there is very little research about how the way we move in the world as gendered persons might affect our other behaviors.

You mentioned that your research institution, St. John's, will not sponsor an LGBT student group on campus. Have LGBT students there found ways to organize and mobilize themselves, and are there any faculty who have advocated in favor of a sponsored LGBT group?

St. John’s University is a private Catholic institution that does not allow LGBT student groups to use St. John’s  facilities (such as classroom space to meet) or provide funding.  Any promotional materials having to do with LGBT issues/community are removed from walls if they are hung in a public space.  Although I am not as involved in campus activities as I was as an undergrad, because I have very different responsibilities now, as far as I can tell these policies have effectively prevented any LGBT student groups from forming.  To my knowledge faculty has not advocated for the formation of an LGBT community group.

One thing I can say is that my faculty advisors, Dr. Raymond DiGiuseppe, Dr. Bill Chaplin and Dr. Beverley Greene have been extremely supportive of my goals.  They have asked questions that have led to them becoming more knowledgeable about and interested in LGBT communities.

Can you share some early findings in your research and what you believe some of the larger implications may be for the LBQ community?

I don’t want to get into the specifics about findings thus far because I would hate to influence the future participants into answering questions in particular ways.  I can say that initial analyses do seem to indicate that the way people think about substance use effects how often they choose to use.

Do you plan to teach or do you plan to continue research in your post-graduate work, and where will your focus be?

The wonderful thing about being a psychologist is that I will be able to do “all of the above.” I truly love research and I would like to continue to contribute to scientific literature, and at the same time I believe that training burgeoning clinicians is of the utmost importance, so I hope to teach as well.  Additionally I plan to treat clients, hopefully with an LGBT outreach group or health center.

Can you identify any wellness providers who have been doing exceptional work with LBQ women struggling with substance abuse?

Although Margaret Rosario is a wonderful researcher in the field I’m not sure I know of any providers who have really focused their careers on treating substance abuse in LBQ women.  That’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this work!

The Lesbian Therapist Referral Network could likely help someone find a provider.  The network’s mission is to provide quality psychotherapy services to members of LGBTQ communities.  What separates them from other “gay and lesbian affirmative therapists” is that everyone in this network identifies as a lesbian.

How difficult has it been to see women in your community struggling with substance abuse? Has this been an issue for you personally?

Although I have used substances and know many people who do so, thankfully there are very few people in my personal life who I would say has had problematic use.  It can be very frustrating to care about somebody very deeply who is more comfortable using a substance to manage stress then they are finding solutions or asking for help.

What will your next steps be once you have completed the study?

I expect this study to be completed by 2015, which is a long way away!  I hope to begin publishing preliminary results before then, but I expect to continue publications, and hopefully beginning to work as a therapist with a LGBTQ organization.

In your view, how can the straight community serve as allies and provide support for LBQ women dealing with substance abuse issues?

There is so much that straight allies can do to help LBQ women, especially healthcare providers.  I would encourage all providers to educate themselves!  Please know a few LGBTQ-friendly places (health centers, community groups, etc.) that you can refer you friends and clients to. Do a bit of reading on what different identities might mean, and above all be open to learning about what being Lesbian, Gay, Queer etc. means to the person you are talking to.  Ask everyone open-ended questions about sexuality and gender/pronoun preferences.