The LGBTQ community was already marginalized and in greater need of mental health services. In the eyes of many health professionals, the coronavirus pandemic only made that need more apparent.
Warning: This story contains mentions of discrimination against the LGBTQ community, suicide, and mentions of sexual assault that some readers may find upsetting.
You are twelve times more likely to attempt suicide if you are a transgender adult compared to cisgender individuals. Around 40% will attempt or consider taking their own life.
Pause for a moment and try to comprehend the sheer number of people affected in the transgender community alone; now understand that the transgender community is not the only part of the LGBTQ+ community to struggle with their mental health.
If you are suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, and/or suicidal thoughts, know this: you are not alone. If you need help, you can skip to the bottom of this article and find resources linked below. If you’re ready for a deep dive into the LGBTQ+ community’s experience with mental health and COVID-19, read on.
The Mental Health Effects of Homophobia
Ashley Salas, a 21-year-old electrical engineering student at the University of Connecticut, shared her battle with mental health. But it didn’t start with the pandemic. It started in New York when she was in primary school and knew something was different about her.
“Even as a kid I was depressed, not all of it stems from my sexuality but it did contribute to it,” she said. “I had a lot of internalized homophobia because of how the LGBTQ [community] was talked about by people. I had known since Pre-K, I already knew.”
The lack of support extended to her life at home. In her Christian upbringing, the idea of being homosexual was thought to be a sin, and that plagued Salas, who came out to her mother when she was 15 and the rest of her family when she was 16. Her experience at home unfortunately is not unique; nearly 50% of LGBTQ youth don’t feel safe at home. In 2020 alone, 29% of LGBTQ+ youth reported experiencing homelessness, were kicked out, or ran away, according to a national survey conducted by the Trevor Project. This number does not even cover the severe cases that people who identify as transgender face. Nearly 40% of them experienced housing instability.
Salas’ romantic partner came from an even more unwelcoming home. “My partner’s family is actually more unaccepting and she hasn’t told her family we’ve been dating for over two years now,” she said. “Her family voted for Trump for both terms. They just don’t like the idea of children knowing about LGBTQ+. Her mom stopped watching the Hallmark [channel] after having their first gay movie and called it an abomination.”
This internalized homophobia followed Salas as she struggled with her sexuality throughout middle school, often identifying as bisexual.
“When I was 13 years old, I told people I was bisexual,” she said. “Performative heteronormativity. So for a time, I thought I was bisexual. Even then I did some experimenting even though I knew I was lesbian.”
Salas attended high school in Manhattan. Despite the area being fairly liberal and dominated by democrats, discrimination was not uncommon. In a 2019 school climate survey from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, 86% of LGBTQ youth reported being harassed or assaulted at school, which can significantly impact their mental health. LGBTQ-related discriminatory policies and practices are not rare. Nearly 60% of students reported having experienced some form of discrimination. The discrimination could come from things as simple as holding hands with your partner or wanting to represent yourself through clothing and school projects. Anything connected to LGBTQ+ could and would be restricted and involved students could face disciplinary action.
Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexual relationships are the preferred or default form of relationships. Coupled with social expectations and culture, this belief helps alienate non-hetero relationships and in cases like Salas, encourages suppressing individual identity and conforming to what society views as normal.
The Effect of Homosexuality on Relationships
Not only does heteronormativity make it difficult for Salas to openly be herself, but it also affects her dating life.
“It was tough too because even when I came out, I had friends with benefits during high school and I was led on in certain aspects,” she said. “It’s not just the aspect of being someone’s secret. It’s knowing that they would never have a relationship with me. I ended up depressed knowing I would end up alone. It’s so much easier entering a hetero relationship.”
When Salas eventually found someone she was able to connect with, a year into their relationship, the pandemic hit. Originally from New York, Salas had family that she could stay with during the beginning stages of quarantine, but this separated her from one of the few people that could understand her.
“It was more of an emotional drain. You couldn’t do the activities you wanted to do,” Salas said. “I couldn’t see my girlfriend for [almost] 4 months so it was like a long-distance relationship. I felt isolated.”
After being open towards her identity, Salas faced another challenge: religion.
“When I came out to my mom and cousin, I cried,” she said “I had a general belief in God but didn’t agree with the Christian tenets. I told my cousin I would go to hell and I felt I wasn’t loved by God because I was gay.”
Her conflict with Christian tenets but desire to connect with God directed her to Islam. “Oddly enough, the experience that caused me to convert to Islam was the first time I slept with a guy,” she said.“I don’t want to say it like this. It felt like I raped myself. I consented and it wasn’t anyone’s fault except for mine and I wanted to go through with it. Because it went through that way I felt disgusted with myself and felt so used by myself. It wasn’t a great feeling and I had immense regret. I like to live life without having regrets and you shouldn’t regret moments in your life because you have so much to live for. I felt like this because I went against my own morals and felt ashamed. People say you can try out many things but when you already know you know. It was one of the lowest points in my life and I had no one to blame but myself.”
The event put Salas into a depressive and suicidal state. “It impacted me emotionally and mentally. When you are in your lowest place it’s where people seek God.” It was in this state when she thought about the world religions module her high school offered and the course about Islam. “That day I wore a hijab,and I haven’t read the Koran but I felt like I needed God in my life and the next day I converted.”
“I had the most serene journey, I never had that calm in my life even as a kid. It lasted two days and I made that change and knew it was correct,” Salas said. “I told my mom and she was upset and told me that I had a demon in my body because I was gay and sent me a video to repent. It hurt me, but I was really calm; after half an hour, I put her to the side and I felt really calm. When I went home to my family wearing a hijab, they were confused and asked why I was wearing that. I felt upset because they were attacking me as a lesbian and a Muslim.”
The Need for Mental Health Care Soars Due to COVID-19
The CDC reported that nearly 40% of Americans noticed an increase or new symptoms of mental illness and substance abuse during late June 2020 in their August weekly update.
Timothy Doak is a counselor at the LGBTQ Well-Being Insititute, one of the programs offered by the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the LGBTQ community. Some programs the Institute provides are counseling services, support groups, and workshops aimed towards supporting individuals towards a fulfilling life. He attested to the sudden surge in demand. “I’m much busier than I usually was. I’m constantly having clients on a waiting list. There has been a huge increase in mental health services,” he said.“Being on Zoom there has been increased accessibility to reaching people. They don’t have to take an hour of their day to come to visit. They can come during [their] lunch break and sit.”
A recent trend in advice that Doak would give to his clients surrounds maintaining a schedule. “We as humans look for structure, we look for things to be consistent,” he said. “When we have too much free time and there’s a lot of downtime, people can become frustrated and anxious. It’s finding that consistency during the day that can help.
Signy Furiya, director of the Well-Being Institute, shared how COVID-19 affected the institute. In 2005, the organization had a total of three employees. Following the pandemic, their staff has grown to five times their original size with fifteen employees.
“We had a significant increase in the number of inquiries and the number of clients we’ve seen,” Furiya said. “One of the groups that started with two people, we’re now up to 12 group members every single week.”
When asked what programs were affected, Furiya talked about their program’s Teen’s Night and Chill Out. Teen’s Night and Chill Out were programs hosted at the Center where youth could meet, play games and watch movies together. However, because of the pandemic these programs were shifted online. “It was beautiful seeing K through 12 and up being comfortable and it brought the center alive. We meet on Discord now, but it’s different.”
Furiya briefly talked about one of their client’s experiences during COVID-19 due to their identity as a transgender woman. “One client had recently come out as a trans woman and was fired from her job because she was giving pushback from how the establishment was handling safety during COVID,” Furiya said. “[When] she started using the women’s restroom she was fired. This was definitely a way of using COVID-19 to fire her. To lose your job during COVID-19, in a space where you suddenly can’t work and can’t interact with the community, starting a discrimination suit, it’s a lot of stress. This client made an enormous stride to fight for her rights”
Concerning safe housing, Furiya expressed her concerns. “Other people had living situations that are not healthy for them, or can’t find housing because of the housing freeze. Other people aren’t moving out. That’s been a challenge. This has already been a challenge for marginalized groups especially with transgender members.”
Both Doak and Furiya contributed the spike of mental health and suicide in the LGBTQ+ during 2020 to isolation.
Signy explained how the pandemic added to these pre-existing factors. “With depression, with the isolation, many of the community don’t have the family support. They could have families that cut ties with them or have interactions that are intermittent,” Signy said. “They don’t have the support that other people have in their community.”
For Doak, isolation already existed around the LGBTQ+ community.
”The biggest thing is the isolation aspect. The LGBTQ+ community is already fairly isolated especially in the Hudson Valley,” Doak said. “The community is strong but it’s not for everyone. In terms of jobs across the board it’s already hard to find a job. For those who present outside the norm it’s really hard for them to find a job because of the implications.”
How to Seek Help
For those who feel unsafe at home but want to get help, Doak talks about others who also can’t find a safe space at home.
“I have a few clients that don’t feel safe at home,” he said. “They can take a walk and we can do a phone session while they’re on a walk. Maybe in a car, through talking or through Zoom. I always ask, ‘do you feel safe, do you feel comfortable?’ My first advice is to find a space where you feel comfortable in the experience.”
Help is out there. If you or someone you know needs support, contact some of the resources below:
Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center – (845) 331-5300
Ulster County mobile and mental health – 1-844-277-4820
The Trevor Project – 1-866-488-7386.
National Suicide Hotline – 800-273-8255
LGBT National Hotline – 888-843-4564