CW: mental health
Long predating the lockdown, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have reported feelings of isolation and loneliness at alarmingly high levels. This reached a point where ‘queer loneliness’ was dubbed an epidemic, and the mental health of the community overall was recognised as dire. With many now separated from their support networks during lockdown, queer people are experiencing new lows in their mental health. Additionally, much of the previously mentally healthy population is also struggling, and NHS services are suffocating from cuts, meaning that many queer people will miss out on vital mental health services as a complacent wider world focuses on going ‘back to normal’.
I am approaching the end of my term as the president of UEA Pride, a peer support group hosted by the Student Union at the University of East Anglia. It exists to enrich the social lives of queer students and combat loneliness directly, also taking on 1:1 casework to combat poor mental health in our members. We are peers rather than trained mental health professionals, so our roles involve helping members by providing social opportunities. During the pandemic, we cannot operate in person and have moved our events to an online platform.
In lockdown, the general sense of purposelessness and loneliness amongst members has been ubiquitous, but since hosting our online events daily, the reception has been positive. Members have reported that these events are maintaining their connection to university life, their peers and the wider LGBTQIA+ community, providing purpose to sustain a routine, and removing accessibility barriers for those with certain disabilities. In this sense, we are helping to maintain and improve some people’s health. However, we have 268 members, and it is simply impossible to maintain regular or effective contact with everyone.
it is simply impossible to maintain regular or effective contact with everyone.
Many queer people are spending the lockdown with unsupportive families. Even in cases where they normally cohabit, going outside can be a lifeline for members of the community to find each other, create their own spaces and express themselves authentically, away from discrimination and rejection in wider society. Microphone calls, however, carry risks, such as being overheard by relatives. For many transgender people, having their families overhear their chosen names can endanger them. Some of our members are even choosing to live alone for the lockdown to avoid repression in unsupportive households. Being alone for two months, of course, also brings overwhelming loneliness, and choosing solitude over family can only reflect how demoralising and unsafe the alternative is.
The attributes of the lockdown present an eerie parallel to an ongoing queer loneliness. We have all heard the jokes about losing track of time and day-drinking; all the anecdotes about feeling detached from friends. Members of our community have been dealing with this phenomenon for years. When the only spaces available for us in which to be our authentic selves are hidden amidst the nightlife, drinking is not only encouraged, but becomes an uncomfortable norm along with other substance abuse. When it is impossible to have a conversation shouting over the music on the dance floor, long-lasting intimacy and friendship get replaced with half-hearted hook-ups.
We have also seen a rise in casework. More members are requesting 1:1 support calls, and it is likely that others who would benefit from extra support are not reaching out – we cannot help feeling useless. Normally our remits include encouraging members to attend events and asking what would help them to do this. However, with our current limitations, this rarely has a successful outcome. Members have reported feeling more anxious about joining calls than attending in-person events, and there is little we can do in response.
a disconnect is forming between the LGBTQ+ community and the healthcare services they may need to access.
If a member’s mental health is particularly bad, we would normally recommend they seek support in a medical setting. However, in the current crisis there are even more obstacles than usual to accessing mental health services. Due to funding cuts, a common complaint is that the waiting times for treatment are too long to be effective. The NHS lists a maximum waiting period of eighteen weeks for most services, and by this time, an individual’s mental health has the capacity to worsen to the extent where issues are more complex and harder to tackle. With the non-queer population now experiencing additional mental health problems in light of social isolation, job losses, financial insecurity, housing instability and fears of contamination, these waiting times for vital services can only worsen. For those who need immediate support, the only option now is virtual communication, which is often challenging for those with anxiety disorders. If a member struggles to attend virtual UEA Pride events, how can they phone a therapist?
With the rainbow flag being appropriated to show support for the NHS, too, a disconnect is forming between the LGBTQ+ community and the healthcare services they may need to access. For many, this will feel like a period of erasure which they cannot combat, leading to a heightened sense of invisibility for queer people.
In order to address the imminent worsening of the mental health crisis, the NHS needs an immediate and significant funding increase. Not confronting this will risk alienating the LGBTQ+ community from healthcare and endangering lives. The disproportionate mental ill health of our demographic has barely been broached, and regardless of how hard volunteer support groups may work to aid members, we are not equipped to alleviate the deep-rooted loneliness which lies at the heart of our community.
Featured image CC BY 2.0 Yue
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