By Lewis Sloan, Features Editor.
For most of us, university is an exciting time of transition that offers us our first taste of independence from home. It can be an opportunity to explore our identity and more fully realise our potential. However, with so much going on, it can be easy to let our concern for self-care slip, and our mental health can suffer as a result. If you are studying and identify as LGBT+, there are unique obstacles you may be facing that can make maintaining a good level of mental health a difficult task.
Statistics show that LGBT+ people in NI are particularly at risk of developing mental health problems. In a report carried out by The Rainbow Project, a staggering 70.9% of LGBT+ people surveyed were reported to have experienced depression, while 64.7% were seeking medical help for depression and/or anxiety.
47% of LGBT+ people were reported to have considered suicide. People who identify as trans were shown to be particularly at risk, with 25% of those surveyed having attempted suicide. It’s time to break the taboo on mental health – people are losing their lives.
This article does not claim to be an exhaustive ‘fix all’ list that will cure complex mental health difficulties. Mental illness, sexuality and gender identity are incredibly complex and personal concepts. The experiences of a white CIS lesbian student in NI, will be incredibly different to those of a transwoman of colour. A person who identifies as asexual will have obstacles to face that are unique from those of an inter-sex individual. Like with all things, we must honour our own personal identity; find what works for us and discard what does not.
With that being said, the following are some things we might keep in mind as we continue to navigate the exciting and tumultuous year ahead as an LGBT+ student at QUB.
Building Your Queer Community:
Finding people who have an understanding of your own unique experiences and have similar experiences of their own is essential for combating and reducing feelings of isolation many LGBT+ people feel. This social support can take the form of just one other person whom you feel you can relate to and be open about your struggles with.
The LGBT+ Society at QUB could also offer a potential space for queer community. The society offers important workshops on issues such as consent and coming out, while also organising a variety of recreational events such as Lip Sync Challenges, the annual Queer Quiz and themed pub crawls.
If you’re under 25 and identify as trans, non-binary, questioning or inter-sex, the charity Gender Jam offers regular events to provide educational, heath-care and social support. Affirm NI also run monthly peer support meetings in Belfast for people aged 25 and over.
While LGBT+ issues and religion have a reputably strained relationship, some students find community in their faith. Up-and-coming organisations like Spectrum offer a space to align Christian faith with LGBT+ identity. The organisation holds monthly meetings and is open to all, irrespective of denomination.
While social media can be a great way of connecting to other LGBT+ people, it’s important to be careful on dating apps such as Grindr/Tinder. Apps like Grindr offer an anonymity that can breed unchecked abuse and end up being a hindrance to overall mental health. Consider limiting your time on these apps or having a temporary social media cleanse if you feel this may be happening.
Diet & Exercise:
You have most likely heard it before: whatever we put into our body will have a beneficial or an adverse effect to our mental health. Consider getting a food shop of fresh fruit and vegetables once a week and prepare some meals in advance. Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water. If you drink alcohol make sure to monitor your intake. It’s really important to blow off some steam once in a while, but if you’re feeling a little out of control with your drinking, take responsibility and cut back. Take a break from going out with nights to the cinema, or practicing some self-care with a night in with Netflix.
Taking into account your own body and its needs, finding a regular form of physical exercise can be a great way to improve mental health. Joining sports and fitness societies at QUB are a great way to socialise while also providing a non-destructive outlet for feelings of frustration, aggression and stress.
If you prefer to practice fitness on your own, apps like Couch to 5K and YouTube channels are a great way to help maintain regular exercise. For example, Yoga With Adriene offers free, online yoga videos for all experience levels. She also provides specific yoga practices such as yoga sequences to combat anxiety, depression and loneliness.
Keep In Contact With Home:
While some LGBT+ people may find spending time with their family detrimental to their mental health, it’s always helpful to remember you have a life outside of university. A phone/Skype call to parents or friends at home, or even spending a few days with them can be a grounding experience. Your family and friends back home might appreciate you checking in!
Sometimes time spent helping others can offer us a much needed distraction from our own anxiety and low mood. Charities like The Rainbow Project and Cara-Friend are always looking for more volunteers. If you have struggled with mental health issues, you could be a valuable source of help to others who might be struggling. The Rainbow Project’s practice of befriending can reduce feelings of isolation within the LGBT+ community.
Know When/Where to Get Help:
Tips mentioned in this article are just some ways that might give us our best chance at maintaining a level of mental health at university. However, it’s important to remember that you are not alone in any distress you may be feeling.
If you feel that you cannot overcome the mental health struggles you are experiencing, help and support is available. Making an appointment with your GP is the first step toward feeling better. If you are honest about how you are feeling with them, you can discuss the options available to you together.
An alternative route toward help is to contact the Queen’s Counselling Service. The Rainbow Project also offers a counselling service specifically for LGBT+ people. Below are a list of contact numbers that could help. Taking the first step can be difficult, but you are very much worth it.
Queen’s Counselling Service: 0808 800 0016
Lifeline: 0808 808 8000
LGB&T Switchboard Cara-Friend: 0808 8000 390
The Rainbow Project: 028 9031 9030
Eating Disorders Association: 028 9023 5959
Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Helpline: 028 9032 9002