Even in regular times, mental health is a complex issue.
Access, acceptance and availability of help can make all the difference into who gets treated and who doesn't.
So it makes sense that this lockdown is uniquely hard on the LGBTQ+ community. They’re often left out of mainstream discourses and fundraising efforts, and many queer young adults are finding it difficult to go back to homophobic or transphobic families. Many are forced back into the closest, or worse yet - kicked out.
Dr Sachin from NIHMANS tells FIT,
Pink List India, an organisation that works in the intersection of queerness and politics is attempting to build a bridge between inclusive mental health experts and the ones who need them most.
As part of their QUEERelief efforts, they have collated a list of queer-friendly, inclusive mental health practitioners to offer support during this time.
The list includes over 50 therapists and peer counsellors from across India who can provide crisis relief during the COVID-19 pandemic for everyone. Services range from counselling to hypnotherapy and most experts on the list offer pro bono services or subsided fees.
Quick disclaimer: I’m a part of the Pink List India team that worked on the list with QueeRelief volunteer - and freelance journalist - Binjal Shah.
Queering Mental Health
You don’t need headlines splashed with the news of an expected mental health surge in the lockdown to know its real. Fear, depression and uncertainty are inevitable, and if there's anything that's come into stark focus its the question of access.
On the other hand, mental health and emotional well-being are made up of many factors: financial wellness, acceptance, a steady support system and more. According to reports, the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to struggle with their mental health because of stigma and discrimination attached to their identity.
An inclusive list is a stepping stone to help LGBTQ+ communities on their journey to healing. Therapy is intensely personal, subjective and vulnerable and to have this experience marred by homophobia can worsen exisiting insecurities. Studies say that non-accepting attitudes of counsellors can re-traumatise clients.
Ipsa James, a QACP certified psychotherapist from New Delhi said that it was important to be “queer-affirmative in your practice before you take on queer clients.”
Sensitivity, acceptance and openness in mental health practice is paramount then.
One of the issues with creating the list was judging the subjective idea of “inclusion.”
The Mariwala Health Insitute offers a certification called the Queer Affirmative Counselling Practice (QACP) that attempts to offer formal training in inclusivity.
But there is not one road to inclusion. From self-identification as a part of a marginalised community to personal experience in working with LGBTQ+ clients to self-education on queer-affirmative, informed and inclusive practices to working with queer organisations, the path to adopting an inclusive mindset and approach to mental health services is endless.
But how to ensure no one is homophobic and inadvertently harms the very people we want to help? The list is dynamic, with more counsellors being added constantly and the clarity that if an expert is called out by the community, their name will be removed.
We spoke to QACP certified experts and trainers, personal recommendations of inclusive counsellors and therapists recommended by friends in the LGBTQ+ community. The list grew from recommendations of a close-knit, trusted group. We called every person and asked them how they practised inclusion.
Aneer Parekh, a psychotherapist from Juhu said, “I'm trained as a client-centred therapist and as such, that is my methodology. Besides, I've been a part of Humsafar training seminars and have been associated with the group on a personal capacity for some time now which has aided my understanding of the community and working with them”
For Hena Faqurudheen, a trauma-focussed psychotherapist, her work informed her practice. “The principles of my work focus on being anti-oppressive, non-judgemental, mindful of the privileges I hold in my position as a therapist, and utilising those to be an ally.”
On the list are also resources like iCall, The Alternative Story and Ya-All, a queer-friendly helpline and resource center from the North-east.
Founder Sadam Hanjabam said he focuses on peer support for queer individuals, especially ones dealing with substance abuse.
One of the other resources is Varta Trust, a comprehensive database of experts across mental health, sexual health and legal aid.
Founding trustee Pawan Dhall told me that their database began from 2017 qualitative study online for online sexual health promotion. He said “our lives are online now, and so the focus was on online dissemination,” and in the current lockdown, resources like these are vital.
“Then 377 happened, and we knew whichever way it would go, there would be a need to cater to LGBT+ communities.”
They have helped 20-25,000 people since they formally started the database in 2018.
On dealing with the complexities of inclusion, Dhall said, “We collaborated with Grindr and Saathi - all three of us wanted to center community validation. We sent detailed questionnaires to the service providers. If anyone was called out, we gave the mental health provider a warning and put them on the watch list. If this happened another time, we removed them. We have updated the list and removed half a dozen names.”
They also identified areas that mental health experts need to focus on through where they got the most complaints. “We got feedback on the need of therapists that can cater to queer people with disabilities.”
Mental health that is inclusive in every sense of the word is a clearly work in progress - but the work is underway.
You can access the list of queer-friendly, inclusive mental health practitioners here.