A photo of Jennifer Holcomb

Jenny Holcomb

Every year, the Hogg Foundation gives the Frances Fowler Wallace Memorial Award for Mental Health Dissertation Research to eligible doctoral candidates at institutions of higher education in Texas. Awardees receive a scholarship to help cover research-related expenses.

One of our 2019 recipients, Jenny Holcomb, is a DrPH candidate in Community Health Practice at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health (UTHealth). We recently talked with Holcomb about her research:

Your project explores community needs across sexual and gender minority generational groups as well as age differences in social, community, and identity factors related to health outcomes. What led you to take a professional interest in this topic, and what questions are you trying to answer with this research?

I was first connected to the Lesbian Health Initiative (LHI) and Montrose Center, a LGBTQ counseling and community center, when I first moved to Houston for graduate school at UTHealth. I volunteered with LHI and continue to volunteer with Assisthers, an organization at the Center that serves mostly older LGBTQ women and gender non-binary adults living with a disability. I listened to stories about the current needs and concerns in the community as well as the rich and vibrant history of the LGBTQ older adult community here in Houston. I was drawn to the stories that reflected the gaps in research with LGBTQ older adults, especially older LGBTQ women and gender non-binary adults in the South.

My dissertation is focused on the mental health needs and social support networks throughout life of LGBTQ older women and gender non-binary adults. I am particularly interested in how social networks as well as churches and other religious spaces have been, and continue to be, important in improving mental health outcomes.

How do you think your research methods and approach will help you answer the questions you’re posing?

My dissertation is mixed methods. I used both secondary data and conducted semi-structured interviews with older LGBTQ women and gender non-binary adults. The secondary data was from a statewide survey with LGBTQ individuals that came from a collaboration between UTHealth and the Montrose Center. A mixed methods approach allows me to validate my findings while also giving a voice and context to those findings. Many of those stories captured in my dissertation will be reflected in the video that I am helping to create with the Montrose Center with funding from the Hogg Foundation. The video will highlight the health and social needs of older LGBTQ adults, the history and community importance of the Montrose Center, and the role of their new senior housing project.

What, from your perspective, is the biggest area of need — or the greatest opportunity — related to this topic? In other words, how could we really move the needle on this front?

We know that LGBTQ older adults are more likely to be socially isolated than heterosexual cisgender adults which can lead to both physical and mental health concerns. Emerging research suggests that isolation can play a role in dementia and cognitive decline. These adults have also experienced a lifetime of discrimination and trauma from homophobic and transphobic structures that have been in place as long as they have been alive. As these older adults continue to age and live longer, those experiences play a role in what kind of social support networks they have and how they navigate healthcare and social services as they continue to face bias in spaces such as nursing homes and other aging care services.

Can you suggest a few readings/resources for those who are interested in learning more about this topic?