Clinical psychologist aims to understand Rainbow folks’ high rates of mental health concerns

Thursday 23 June 2022

Senior lecturer in clinical psychology Dr Ilana Seager van Dyk’s ultimate goal is to better understand the vast mental health disparities experienced by LGBTQ+ youth, and to improve evidence-based clinical care for these youth and their families.

Ilana wears several different hats at Massey. She teaches postgraduate papers on clinical psychology interventions and assessments, supervises postgraduate student research projects, and conducts her own research.

“I also see a few clients myself at the Psychology Clinic, and consult with interns and others on clinical issues that arise (particularly related to Rainbow topics and working with youth). I have a number of service roles within the university as well as internationally, many of which involve advocating for equity for Rainbow folks.”

Her research aims to understand why Rainbow folks are more likely than cisgender, heterosexual people to experience high rates of mental health concerns. She uses experimental and longitudinal methods to see when these patterns start to emerge, and whether there are emotional or social processes that make these problems worse (or better).

“I also develop evidence-based psychological interventions for children and adolescents, particularly affirming interventions for young Rainbow folks and their families,” she says.

“At the moment, I’m working on SO many things, but I think the project I am most excited about is a pilot treatment trial for Rainbow youth. So far, LGBTQ-affirmative cognitive behavioural therapy is the only randomised-control trial-tested intervention for Rainbow people with mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. Since that intervention is for adults, I adapted the treatment materials for use with teenagers and ran a small pilot trial late last year to see whether it was feasible. I am now working on applying for a grant so that I can adapt the intervention for the New Zealand context, and deliver it to Rainbow youth across the country.”

After spending 14 years in the USA where she completed her undergraduate degree, masters and PhD in clinical psychology, Ilana was eager to come home to Aotearoa after the pandemic hit.

Ilana at her first pride festival in London, 2011 (left)

Ilana says that like many queer people, Pride has a special place in her heart.

“I vividly remember attending my first ever Pride March in London, and feeling for the first time like I could exhale, like I could let go of this performance of sexuality and gender and just be myself.

“More broadly, I see Pride as important for two reasons. First, Rainbow people continue to face unimaginable amounts of discrimination and stress (just recently, think of the arson of a Rainbow Youth centre in Tauranga, and the anti-trans conference in Nelson). Pride is an opportunity to really focus our attention on how we can become a more affirming and equitable society that supports our diverse and resilient Rainbow community.

“Second, unlike many other minoritised groups, Rainbow people tend to be raised in families without other Rainbow people, so we don’t always have an in-built support network. Pride is a chance for Rainbow people to come together to celebrate our unique strengths and creativity, and to be surrounded by other Rainbow people sometimes for the first time.”

At the moment, Ilana is really passionate about amplifying Rainbow voices and highlighting the strengths and resilience of the community.

“I put this passion into action both at work and in my personal life. For example, I co-led efforts over the past few months to elevate the role a gay activist in the 1970s had in removing homosexuality as a psychiatric diagnosis. The Rainbow community is more than just depressing statistics — we are diverse and strong and fabulous.”

In her spare time we can find Ilana either reading, buying, or talking about queer books on Instagram.

“I love reading queer stories by queer people, and am always on the lookout for good book recommendations for young Rainbow folks and their whānau.”

If you are a student interested in completing a research project or thesis on Rainbow issues, please reach out to Ilana by email.

Ilana at a New York pride event, 2012