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'It's going to be OK:' Peoria Proud president shares advice and her own mental health journey

Cassie Lucchesi, president of Peoria Proud
Cassie Lucchesi
Cassie Lucchesi, president of Peoria Proud

Mental health impacts everyone differently, but some communities face disparities that can take a much bigger toll on their mental wellness, or call for extra things to consider when deciding when and if to seek treatment.

The LGBTQ community is disproportionately impacted by mental health issues. According to the American Psychiatric Association, people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community are more than twice as likely as heterosexual men and women to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime.

Cassie Lucchesi is the president of Peoria Proud, an LGBTQ+ rights and advocacy organization in the Peoria area. She said members of the LGBTQ+ community are struggling with a lot of different issues related to mental health that not many people fully understand.

“When someone in the LGBTQ community is accessing any kind of health care, something that we have to take into account is whether or not this person is going to be affirming to us, and whether or not we are going to be in a safe space where we're at… \a lot of our community faces disparities with like, trouble at home, being kicked out, especially the younger population. There's a lot of internalized homophobia that people are facing,” Lucchesi explained.

Honesty is a critical part of the healing process when seeking mental health treatment. Having to hide something as crucial to an individual’s life such as romantic partners or gender identity when seeking therapy out of fear the behavioral health provider won’t be accepting is a struggle many members of the LGBTQ+ community are grappling with, according to Lucchesi.

“How can we be honest and get the services that we need and the help that we need to heal when we are hiding part of who we are?”

Lucchesi said she didn’t take her mental health seriously until she went to college at Bradley University and had a very traumatic experience. That experience brought her to the University’s counseling services, but as a student juggling a full course load, work, and extracurricular activities, therapy seemed like just another thing taking up the little time she had.

As years went by, she felt like she was going through life on autopilot.

“It wasn't probably until, I don't know, maybe 2016 or 2017 where I really took a step back and was like, you know, I need to go see somebody. I need to find a counselor and really talk about all of these things that have happened. Just starting with events at Bradley, even going further back into childhood…just things that impact you that you didn't really think impacted you or the fact that I didn't come out till I was 23, even though I knew that I was gay when I was 13,” said Lucchesi.

Cassie Lucchesi, president of Peoria Proud
Jody Holtz
Cassie Lucchesi, president of Peoria Proud

Deciding to seek help is step one. However, for members of the LGBTQ+ community, finding a behavioral health provider isn’t as simple as doing a quick google search. Lucchesi said there was no website around that listed affirming mental health professionals. That left her with limited options to find someone who would let her talk openly about her relationships and accept her for who she is.

“I went to Facebook and I posted on my Facebook and I was like, friends in the LGBTQ community and also Peoria, help. I need someone…there's not one place that I could find that information and have it easily accessible to me, and so I ended up just reaching out through friends,” explained Lucchesi.

Reaching out through friends seems to be a viable option for those looking for first hand experiences. But for others, that thought can be intimidating for those who aren’t so comfortable with posting online that they’re seeking mental health resources. This gap in information was an issue Peoria Proud decided to take into their own hands.

“So Peoria proud started putting together a list, and we call it DoCCs, of affirming health care providers in the area,” said Lucchesi.

DoCCs, or directory of clinical care services, is a document made for LGBTQ+ people, by LGBTQ+ people. A member of that community can nominate a healthcare professional who will then fill out a survey. From there, medical students working with Peoria Proud vet those surveys and compile a list of affirming providers. Lucchesi said while this list is a start, it’s not comprehensive.

In addition to the struggle of locating providers to begin with, Lucchesi said the political environment of the United States can also weigh heavily on LGBTQ+ folks. She notes especially hard hitting events are the overturning of Roe versus Wade, and a statement made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' saying the high court should reconsider rulings that establish LGBTQ and contraceptive rights.

“Coming after same sex marriage, coming after the way people have sex and what they do in their own bedrooms, coming after the right to contraception, I mean, the whole state of this has just been really unnerving and really uneasy, and I think a lot of people in the LGBTQ community are feeling that on a much deeper level, just because there are so many rights at stake here,” explained Lucchesi.

With high political tensions in the U.S and around the world serving as another factor impacting mental health, the city of Peoria seems to offer a bit of relief to Lucchesi, though she notes there’s always work to be done.

“Peoria does a decent job, affirming us, at least in my opinion. I don't ever feel unsafe holding my wife's hand when I walk in the community. I don't ever feel like people are being discriminatory toward me when I'm out in the community…so I think Peoria does a pretty decent job. I also think that like, we have access to services like domestic violence services, sexual assault services, human trafficking services through the Center for Prevention of Abuse, you know, they take all people regardless of gender and sexual orientation, and so that's a resource that's available. I think that there is always room to grow.”

Lucchesi has been seeing a therapist every two weeks and attributes that, along with a supportive spouse who is also in therapy, as a reason she would categorize her mental health as pretty good these past couple of years. She believes everyone should have access to therapy.

Cassie with her wife
Cassie Lucchesi
Cassie with her wife

“Because regardless of trauma, take trauma completely off the table. Regardless of that, there are just so many things that people need a neutral space to go to, and have feedback for. Whether it's a relationship or complaining about your job, or, you know, the status of everything that's been happening in the United States over these last couple months and couple years, I mean, the pandemic had a huge effect on people,” said Lucchesi.

Despite her own mental health being on the up, she realizes that doesn’t mean that everyone is feeling okay. People in the Tri-County are struggling, according to the 2022 Community Needs Health Assessment survey. In addition to not ever putting a time frame on healing, Lucchesi offers some advice to other members of the LGBTQ+ community who may be having a hard time right now.

“Put yourself first. Think about you and what it is that you need to heal, and know that there's someone out there that is going to affirm you, that is going to validate you and your experience. Know that there is a mental health professional in this area that is good and will listen and will provide you the feedback that you need. Also…if they're not working for you, find somebody else, right?

Surround yourself with community and people who will uplift you and support you. Come to events that are in person. Come meet people who may or may not share some of the experiences that you've shared. There is something to be said for a group of people getting together and supporting one another through some really tough times…it's going to be okay.”

Peoria Proud’s list of affirming clinical care services can be found here.

Jody Holtz is WCBU's assistant development director, assistant program director, host of WCBU's newsmagazine All Things Peoria and producer of WCBU’s arts and culture podcast Out and About.