Words by Marley DeRosia
Art provided by The Free Art Collective
“It’s been a rollercoaster” – Anonymous
The pandemic. Threatening legislation. Shootings.
We know it’s bad. I don’t need to remind you. We’re all struggling, but an oft-overlooked group might be hurting more than you know. According to a recent survey conducted by The Trevor Project, the last few years have been particularly damaging to the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth.
Their 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health detailed that nearly half of LGBTQ+ youth seriously considered taking their own life in the last year. And among those who wanted to seek mental health care in the same time period, 60% weren’t able to get it.
And when frequent changes directly harm the LGBTQ+ community, the threat to mental health and wellness only grows.
“Here we are, almost three years after the explosion of a pandemic. There’s still a lot of healing trying to take place,” notes Kyle Fullmer, LHMC (he/him).
As the clinical director of Gaining Ground Roc, Kyle knows a thing or two about taking care of your mental health. He operates the therapy clinic as a co-op with his team, where each member is a decision-maker in the company. As a progressive mental health institution, the Gaining Ground team works to make therapy affordable and accessible to people of all backgrounds, including members of the queer community.
“My therapy style comes from an attachment-based perspective. Queer people have a unique relationship with attachment compared to cis-het people,” Kyle explains.
While Rochester has become a quiet hub for queer expression, it doesn’t mean that everyone is getting the mental health care that they need. It’s simply harder for a large number of the LGBTQ+ population to get adequate care: discrimination and other factors, including the cost, sets therapy out of reach. And that’s only after someone is able to break out of the classic American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that adds shame to seeking therapy in the first place. Kyle notes that if a child comes out as trans, there’s a chance they may not make it to adulthood.
This conversation led to Flower Power’s anonymous survey for LGBTQ+ mental health at the end of 2022. While talking to a professional about what we can do for our mental health—and the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals—is helpful, it’s not the best way to gauge how our Rochester community is actually feeling post-pandemic.
We got responses from a range of individuals: those who identified as queer, non-binary, bisexual, trans masc. Their ages spanned from under the age of 18 all the way through people in their 60s. Their responses echoed similar experiences: queer people have been struggling after the pandemic.
To be honest, they were struggling before the pandemic, too. More than 70% reported that they did not attend therapy before the pandemic and all participants noted that they had either a clinical mental health diagnosis or recognized symptoms of mental distress without a formal diagnosis.
And all participants noted that their mental health did not improve after changes or the possibility of change in legislation.
“News like these anti-transgender legislation reminds us that we’re being otherized,” Kyle explains. “When you hear shame words like ‘different’ or ‘problem’ it’s something that you might feel subconsciously or consciously.”
When it came to pandemic-related experiences, however, it was a mixed bag. Some felt more in control when they took their job from the office to the dining room, boosting their mental health. Some dealt with extreme grief after losing loved ones to COVID-19. Others were forced to confront aspects of themselves that they’d been putting on the back burner.
“Before the pandemic, I was doing ‘just okay,’ at best,” explains a survey participant who identifies as a nonbinary transmasculine queer person. “During quarantine I had no choice but to confront feelings about my gender that I had been experiencing. In the moment, it was tough; but the freedom that comes with advocating for yourself and living more authentically is priceless.”
“I still struggle with mental health issues unrelated to my gender,” they continue, “but the relief that came from affirming who I am immensely improved my quality of life.”
The one decent thing about the pandemic is that it finally gave some of us an excuse to slow down. To look at ourselves and the way we’re doing things. For some, it helped. But other times, it led to isolation.
“The pandemic and the [separation] from people made my mental health worse, but being able to work from home and spend time on me really helped,” a participant who identifies as queer says. “One of the biggest struggles was watching an administration hate our existence without being able to access the queer community for support.”
That community access is key, especially as new challenges to legislation come our way. One of the ways we find belonging in our lives is by connecting with people who have similar experiences. Laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill not only eradicate queer identities, but they also makes it impossible to find kindred spirits.
“The idea of my rights being taken away, the continually declining environment, the toxic political climate, and a decrease in community due to COVID have all had a huge impact,” details another respondent who is queer. “I was a strong member of the LGBTQ+ community pre-COVID. It’s hard to re-enter that community ‘post’-pandemic.”
One way to help banish feelings of isolation is by establishing new queer-friendly safe spaces. Kyle explains that there simply aren’t enough friendly, non-alcoholic locations for queer people to connect.
“What does help someone feel better is letting someone know they aren’t alone in their pain,” he says. And in terms of professional help, he can’t recommend therapy enough. “When you work on your mental health, you don’t feel so steeped in that pain all the time.”
But therapy isn’t the only answer; rather, it’s one of many that can take part in tandem. Kyle recognizes that the U.S. doesn’t make it easy for anyone to thrive, let alone marginalized communities.
When asked how we can strive to better our mental health, Kyle responds, “If I answer honestly, I’m going to shoot for the moon: we can’t live in a capitalist hellscape.”
It’s a joke, but one that’s steeped in truth. He goes on, saying, “We could have so many more social services to help people lead more fulfilled, self-actualized lives. Every human on earth deserves to do that.”
He continues to explain that our world is very shame-driven. One of his goals is to encourage his clients to put down their shame and walk away from it. Our puritanical society wants us to “be ashamed of everything,” but deriving motivation from sources of empowerment will prevent issues like burnout, guilt, and depression.
On top of that, our connection to our devices can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness; this is compounded if you’re glued to the news.
“It should be your goal to forget your phone for at least half an hour a day,” Kyle says. “The news shows us pain and suffering—it’s out there, but our human brains can’t fathom all this pain all the time. I might seem like a crotchety old man, but we need to promote mindfulness. Look at the blessings in our lives and find empowerment in our lives with the people who love us.”
Some of the examples of mindfulness Kyle offered were already being utilized by survey respondents. A few participants noted that they engage with therapy, but more noted that they’ve tried yoga, reading, and joining online groups with other queer people to feel connected.
Others are simply enriching their lives in new ways and tapping into creativity they might have forgotten about, like making YouTube videos and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Some have put in the self-work to recognize patterns that cause their mental health to spiral.
And allies can help, too! Simply being there for a friend can make all the difference. Offer your support and see the world through their eyes. Empathizing with their struggles is essential in challenging your own framework.
“Queer people have a foundationally different experience of connecting and relating to the world compared to those that are cis-het,” Kyle says. “If there’s a foundational difference, challenge yourself to understand.”
The way we live has inextricably changed as a result of the pandemic, but a series of blows to the health and happiness of the LGBTQ+ community demands our support. If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community, know that you have Flower Power’s support.
Times are tough, but you’re tougher.