LGBTQ researcher named Georgia Psychiatrist of the Year

Did you know Georgia recently named a psychiatrist of the year? Did you know she’s a highly skilled advocate for our LGBTQ community? You do now, so let’s meet the incomparable Dr. Yolanda Graham. 

Upon hearing the news that her diligence and advocacy placed her in the upper echelons of those in her industry, Dr. Graham, most humble, admits that she was shocked. “The Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association has presented this honor for that past 49 years,” she tells Georgia Voice. “And because I have spent my entire professional career in Georgia, I’ve known most of the previous recipients to be educators, mentors, or overall pioneers in our field.”

In that moment, Dr. Graham says she “thought of so many of the families and children I’ve worked with, and I realized I was definitely old enough to be in the running for the award, and felt absolutely humbled and overcome that my GPPA peers saw my work as deserving of that recognition. It was a great moment.”

As a psychiatrist, Dr. Graham has spent her life protecting and preserving mental health. She’s currently the chief medical officer of Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, and she has a special concern — and has made a special study — of the LGBTQ community. She spoke with us about her career, and the special intersection of psychiatry and the LGBTQ community.

Dr. Graham is board certified in General Psychiatry, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She’s deeply studied in mental health, child advocacy, psychotropic medication management, behavioral management, and childhood sexual exploitation and trauma. Previously, she served in a variety of official positions across Georgia. Additionally, she is an adjunct associate professor at Emory University and an adjunct assistant clinical professor at Morehouse School of Medicine.

Dr. Graham describes Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Georgia as one of the nation’s largest nonprofit organizations providing services, insight, and leadership in the evolving field of behavioral healthcare. 

“We were founded in 1912 by special education pioneer Helena Devereux,” she says. “Today, we are a national nonprofit partner for individuals, families, schools, and communities, serving many of the most vulnerable members of our society in the areas of autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, specialty mental health, and child welfare.”

Speaking about Pride month, Dr. Graham says the celebration “has always been a time to stop and appreciate the challenges our community has overcome, as well as those we continue to face. Professionally, I see Pride month as a time to educate others on the risk of mental health challenges in our community, providing information on resources and support.”

While having a special month was crucial, Dr. Graham adds that the community needs to focus on LGBTQ pride and mental health every month, “in order to shift societal and cultural norms and reach a state of inclusivity that models respect, acceptance, and emotional and physical safety. I’d be remiss if I did not mention that it’s hard to develop pride when you are faced with hostility, disdain, and an unwillingness to understand. The period of identity formation — when most young people are challenging the norm and pushing against societal expectations to figure out who they are — can be stressful but, for LGBTQ youth, it can really go awry. Young people look to their parents, community, and media outlets to determine who they are and who they want to be. Gay youth don’t have that.” 

Dr. Graham says there is no “biological evidence of an increased risk of mental illness associated with being gay or transgender.” However, she contends that the odds of experiencing mental upset “are worse for LGBTQ young people when their parents and/or familial structures are not supportive — the suicide risk becomes eight times higher. The lack of family support also increases the child’s risk for homelessness, sexual exploitation, and trauma.”

She adds that the “risk [presented] from psychosocial stressors related to discrimination, rejection, and not feeling safe” were prominent. “If you look at the research on suicide,” Dr. Graham says, “LGBTQ youth within a supportive family environment have much lower rates of suicide than those who do not — their rates are similar to those of their peers. So, a first step, one that cannot be overstressed, is the importance of family support as a protective element for LGBTQ youth.”

Historically, she notes, society was aware of “the impact of overt oppression against marginalized populations, so we know that people defined as ‘other’ in any society are more at risk for overt violence and trauma. When you break it down and look at the statistics, the challenges are unique to any given group, but the outcomes look the same — higher rates of violence, trauma, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.”

As for mental health professionals, Dr. Graham says it’s of the utmost importance that they “develop cultural competency in working with LGBTQ youth, to make sure we are not inadvertently causing more harm.”
“It’s one thing to say we are open and accepting,” she says. “It’s quite another to demonstrate it. Even as a child psychiatrist who identifies as lesbian, I am always learning. Just because I am gay doesn’t mean I understand every gay experience.”

She says she felt “so strongly” about this that she led Devereux Georgia’s campaign to achieve the Gold Seal certification from the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. 

“We had to examine our language, visual displays, trainings, clinical programs, and learn how to create a sense of safety and empowerment from the perspective of the LGBTQ young people we serve,” she says.

Speaking specifically of youth counseling, Dr. Graham says that while addressing mental health issues is necessary, “it’s also important to understand the young person in front of you.”

“It’s not enough to ask about one’s sexuality and document it in the record,” she adds. “If you are really interested and want to help, ask what that experience is like for them and what has shaped their belief in who they are. To become an ally, you have to understand what it is like to live as an LGBTQ person, in our society. Be willing to examine and challenge your own narrative. And because silence and neutrality are equally detrimental, be ready to act when the need presents. Next, challenge and educate someone else. That’s a start.”