South Africa’s LGBTI community continues to face extreme discrimination and inadequate health care. File Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)
South Africa’s LGBTI community continues to face extreme discrimination and inadequate health care. File Picture: Brendan Magaar/African News Agency (ANA)

Spike in mental illness issues in LGBTQI+ community during lockdown

By Anna Cox Time of article published Jun 30, 2020

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Depression, anxiety and issues relating to mental well-being have seen a sharp spike in frequency during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among the most vulnerable groups affected are some members of the LGBTQI+ community, where isolation and the enforced sharing of hostile, emotionally challenging spaces are leading to despondency.

The Queer Wellness Centre - a clinic in Illovo, Joburg, that serves the specific needs of the LGBTQI+ community - has identified this crisis, and is fully equipped to deal with it.

Malan van der Walt, a 34-year-old educational psychologist attached to the QWC, says this lockdown has been particularly difficult for some members of these often marginalised communities.

“I would like to get the message out: You do not have to deal with this on your own. We at the QWC are open for business and help is a phone call away. I urge people to call in and make an appointment.”

He added that there were trained professionals available at QWC to help those in need, either in person or on social media platforms like Zoom.

Van der Walt said there were certain anxiety-causing situations that were specific to particular groups within the LGBTQI+ community.

Educational psychologist and therapist Malan van der Walt.

“Let’s take someone transitioning, socially or physically, into the gender with which they identify, who has not yet had the gender changed on an identity document.

“There is the constant fear of being stopped by police who find the gender does not match that on the ID.

“It would cause anxiety at any time, but being stopped when you are out during this time of lockdown is much more likely, and therefore much more anxiety-producing.”

In another example of a stress inducing situation, Van der Walt used the analogy of victims of domestic violence who are trapped with their abuser at this time of self-isolation.

“Likewise, because of the lockdown time spent in close proximity to others in a confined space, queer people who have not revealed their sexual or gender identity to those around them may fear harassment or abuse should those they live with not be affirming or accepting. Often that fear stems from possible rejection, humiliation or, in a worst case scenario, ejection from the family home.”

He said transphobia and homophobia were still prevalent in parts of society and the attached stigma creates feelings of deep anxiety for vulnerable groups. Van der Walt says he is also aware of how mental healthcare needs intersect with socio-economic status and acknowledges that socio-economic situations may exacerbate mental health self-care.

In short, he says, there is no “one size fits all” in a country struggling with such massive income inequality and that is as diverse as South Africa.

He co-facilitates a parallel support group for trans youth and the parents of trans youth, and says that vulnerability, and therefore the possibility of fear, hopelessness, anxiety and depression, comes in a host of different shapes and sizes.

“Queer people, who might be functioning well on the surface, could have difficult or traumatic experiences - being unacknowledged and dealing with issues of abandonment and rejection - triggered by the solitariness of self-isolation. There were practical things people who were depressed or anxious could do.

“Reach out to a person you can trust, who has consistently shown up for you in the past, someone you can confide in. Monitor your sleep patterns: establish a sleeping routine about an hour before bedtime, and aim to do about 30 minutes of light exercise three times a week.”

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