For anonymity purposes some of the names have been changed.
“It felt like a storm inside of my head. All my thought were flying and bumping into each other not giving me a second to rest. And majority of them were suggestions whether people know about my orientation or not yet. What if they know but don’t tell me, what is they are pretending to behave as usual only because they are preparing something awful, what if my parents are ashamed of me. I was thinking that I am just preparing myself for all possible scenarios and yet, it didn’t give me any confidence, in fact, quite opposite” – while telling her story Anna almost doesn’t look in my direction, her head is turned to the window and her gaze is unfocused.
Till her 17 Anna was living with her parents in a small city close to Kyiv – Bila Tserkva. She is an only child in her family with quite good relationships between her and her parents, as she says. Despite a trust within the family Anna doesn’t feel ready to come out as a lesbian to someone else apart of her two close friends in Warsaw, Poland where she lives for the last 6 years.
“At the age of 12-13 I already knew that boys don’t interest me in a romantic way and it felt weird for me to participate in a relationship discussion with my other classmates. It took me a few more years to understand myself and accept my sexual orientation. However with accepting myself I didn’t get any inner peace, I started to worry about things that were out of my scope. At first it was minor, like how would my friends or family react if they knew. But it quickly turned in a never ending worrying about everything around me, I was checking on every word I am saying to other people, was trying to read their mind, my body was always tensed. So when my parents suggested me to move to Poland for studies, I saw it a great escape option. But I didn’t get any relief here, I felt worse.”
Anna experienced General anxiety disorder for 3 consecutive years, before she was diagnosed and started her therapy. Now she can finally say that the storm has ended, however a period of her later teenage years is still a hard topic for her.
Anxiety and mood disorders, especially depression, are getting more and more awareness in the past years. The main reason for this awareness may be lying in the general growth of cases for these disorders.
According to WHO the estimated prevalence of mental disorders in the WHO European Region in 2015 was 110 million, equivalent to 12% of the entire population at any one time (44.3 million of registered cases of depression and 37.3 million cases of anxiety). During the pandemic the situation has worsen: a study published by Lancet on October 8th, 2021 shows that depression rates have increased to 27.6% and anxiety to 25.6% during the pandemic. Mental health nowadays is a hot topic not only within health organizations; it is being brought up on a governmental level, became a trend in social media and a common word in corporations.
However it is not something new to the LGBT community. Studies vary in statistics, however average numbers suggest that LGBT people and especially teenagers are 2-3 times more likely to have a depression, anxiety or even suicidal intentions.
LGBT community during pandemic
Based on the recent reports, LGBT+ people are more tend to suffer of the coronavirus’ impact on mental health, comparing to non-LGBT+ individuals. According to the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor report, 74% of LGBT+ people stated that the pandemic caused reduction to the mental wellness and 49% declared that the damage to their psychological health was major. Meanwhile only 49% of non-LGBT+ reported negative impact on mental health and 23% described it as extensive.
Post-effects of the pandemic’s influence on mental health have spread within LGBT+ people: difficulties with sleep, eating and affective disorders as well as somatic problems in 2:1 ratio comparing to non-LGBT+. 55% of the LGBT+ respondents encountered at least one of the above symptoms versus 34% of non-LGBT+ people.
The difference is also evident in the field of need of mental health care – one quarter of LGBT+ individuals look for mental health care due to the pandemic, whereas only ten percent seeks the same among non-LGBT+. And regardless of a higher need of the care, LGBT+ people have less opportunities to get the help comparing to other people. Due to discrimination some LGBT+ individuals (19%) cannot afford themselves quality mental health care, while only 5% of non-LGBT+ have such problem. Also, those who have reached the specialist may encounter unfair treatment – it has been reported, that a mental medicine co-worker did not believe a patient was telling the truth (16% v. 8% of non-LGBT+), suggested they were to blame for a health problem (13% v. 8%), assumed something without asking (21% v. 11%), and dismissing their concerns (29% v. 16%).
Despite a high level of fear of discrimination a lot of people are still seeking help and support. Volunteers and social workers in Ukraine report that the amount of requests for psychological support in 2020 has doubled in comparison to 2019. Olena Shevchenko from the non-profit organization Insight confirms that Covid has affected LGBT community really hard especially because many people have lost their jobs, in some cases homes and were forced to move back to the smaller cities.
High demand for psychological support together with a fear of rejection is not the only and not the main problem LGBT+ is facing in the past few years. It is hard to tell whether pandemic has sharpened problems related to healthcare, salaries, violence and non-tolerance or they got more light and attention in media recently.
One of the most known problematic spheres is access to healthcare. Many people face discrimination when they reveal their SOGI to doctors and many more are afraid to face this discrimination so they simply neglect attending a medical setting. Marianna was one of the people who decided to share her unpleasant experience that happened to her 4 months ago. She had a visit to a hospital for her hormonal therapy medications after going through the testing and diagnosing procedures for gender transitioning in Poland. However, instead of medications she got a lecture from a doctor that she should be treated for premature ejaculation so she would feel less feminine and becomes “normal and healthy”.
“I am not the one who would tolerate such a behavior towards me, however at that point I was almost speechless and just left. On the next day I decided to post a short post with my dialog with the “doctor” on my FB page. I don’t have much friends or followers, however I was able to get the support I needed a well as recommendations for transgender-friendly doctors in Warsaw. But I still feel like this situation has left a small imprint on me, like dirt stuck to the clothes”
Another problem is that some people are getting responses or comments that their problem and hormonal therapy in general is a “not #1 priority” due to pandemic and they should thing more about wasting doctor’s time. Marianna has shared a few stories of other transgender women and a man who unfortunately got such messages or ones similar to it. Even though it is hard to prove that discrimination took place based on SOGI, everyone who has experienced it before can feel and understand that this was a reason.
Pandemic has introduced society to the new state it hasn’t experienced to such extend – prolonged lock downs. Being stuck at home together with a family has provoked an increased amount of coming outs, many of which were involuntary:
“Parents were figuring out gender identity or sexual orientation of their children, which would lead to arguments, so help was needed for both: children and parents.” – says psychologists Maryna Didenko. – “Anxiety increased as there were people who have lost their jobs, had to move back to their parents or stay at home alone without any support or with a limited support. During a lock down LGBT people had less contact with their support circles, there was no possibility to go out or to meet with other people occasionally”.
Basically, lock down didn’t only leave a lot of people by themselves; it took away various events and support centers where people were able to feel valid and secure.
While same-sex relationships are prosecuted in 69 countries and are punished by death in 11 of them, even in developed countries LGBT+ are also suffering of social manifestation of homophobia and transphobia, wielded by governments, politicians and ordinary members of the public. And the restrictions created under the circumstances of the coronavirus only aggravated the crowd mood, not lowering the hate in any way.
Prejudgment to LGBT+ representatives was exposed with renewed vigor in response to COVID-19 around the world. In Uganda 20 LGBT homeless youth were tortured in prison after being arrested for false accusation of breaking COVID-19 restrictions. In the Philippines, LGBT people were murdered by village officials due to curfew. In Panama, police and private security officials discriminated against transgender people while enforcing a gender-based quarantine.
Even in more social-developed countries the problem occurs. In Netherlands, a gay couple has been spat upon and insulted by a group of teenagers right on a street. In South Korea, social media users scapegoated LGBT people after some media linked an outbreak to gay clubs. Poland and Hungary radically conservative governments began to push anti-LGBT laws in the name of traditional family values, banning same sex couples and promoting “LGBT free” attitude among authorities.
In Ukraine a Pride March has been assaulted in Odesa in 2020 – stones, bottles and pepper sprays were used against participants; a few months later a public center of queer culture has been attacked during a film screening in the same city. Nevertheless, some Ukrainian lawyers are stating that the amount of hate crimes to LGBT+ has decreased due to lockdown – according to them, the less people can see each other in person the fewer crimes can be done.
However, the official EU position is different. “The COVID-19 pandemic has led to even higher levels of violence and discrimination against LGBTI persons, including domestic violence, hate speech online and offline, and hate crimes. They often face stigma and discrimination in accessing health services. Moreover, the pandemic has led to shrinking civic space and an increase in arbitrary arrests and detentions, physical attacks and psychological trauma for human rights defenders protecting the rights of LGBTI persons.” – said High Representative Josep Borrell.
Cases of domestic violence during the pandemic have increased a lot as well, as studies show.
“And cases of domestic violence in LGBT couples have increased as well” – adds Maryna. – “When we are isolated and closed, we don’t speak much to other people, we become aggressive towards each other. For example, if people didn’t learn how to communicate with each other”
Violence can be not only physical or sexual, there are many psychological forms of it, like manipulation, gaslighting, verbal abuse, etc. And it is not always noticed by the person who experiences this type of violence. Aggressors, on the other hand, as well may not understand that their behavior is harmful and toxic and most likely results from suppressed feelings of aggression, fear or sorrow. And by so couple continues to suffer and arguments become more and more heated what created additional stress and can provoke mental disturbances.
Where to turn for help?
In the recent years there are more and more psychologists who specify that they are LGBT-friendly and are trained to support people within the community. Some psychological centers also offer their support on a free basis, in Ukraine LGBT people can safely contact following organizations:
- Gender Z – human rights organization
- Friendly doctor – free psychological consultations for LGBT+ people
- Tergo – non-profit organization that supports parents and friends of LGBT+ people
- Insight – non-profit organization that gives differnt kinds of support to LGBT+ people
- Vidchuy sebe (Відчуй себе) – center of psychological support, friendly to LGBT+ people
One of the first steps to feel better is to speak up to someone who understands and accepts your problems, making you feel noticed and valid.
Even if situation looks desperate we should not keep silent about it, as by bringing more light to the unfairness, violence and discrimination we let people who suffered from it know that they are not alone and that together we can make a change. Hard times make strong people and strong people make good times.
Blogger, Clicical pshychologist from Ukraine, currently living in Warsaw
This material is prepared as part of the Writing for Diversity project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Program and the German Federal Foreign Office.