It is interesting that Mental Health Awareness Month in May and LGBT Pride Month in June intersect, considering that the LGBTQ community has been impacted particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing many to grapple with wellness issues.
For students, the move into quarantine may have separated them from a safe haven, leaving them to deal with issues that cause stress. “When LGBTIQA+ students are physically located on UNC’s campus, they have a connection to community of supportive peers and adults through the LGBTQ Center,” said its director, Dr. Terri Phoenix. “While the University did a good job of allowing students to stay who had no home to go to, which was the case with several of our LGBTIQA+ students, when students had to move out of residence halls, there were still many who went back to homes in which their identities are not affirmed and in situations where they have no access to supportive peers or adults.”
This sudden loss of access to affirming spaces, important social groups and connections, affirming mentors and affirming healthcare providers is especially stressful. “A student may have come to UNC and been able to come out, be accepted and find a supportive community, but they are now having to return to a home where they aren’t out and they have to go back into the closet and experience those stressors all over again,” said Avery Cook, associate director and clinical coordinator at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
“They’re also greatly impacted by the social isolation and loneliness that comes with social distancing, particularly if one gets their primary support from folks outside of their [legal] family and are then cut off from their family of choice,” he added.
Further adding to the stress are the various scenarios that students may face when living with family members or guardians who not affirming their identity. “Some of the ramifications are that they are isolated, enduring sermons about being abominations, consistently misgendered and deadnamed, and may suffer verbal and/or physical abuse,” said Terri.
CAPS offers immediate support 24/7 to students and Campus Health has remained available to local students in person, through Telehealth, so that LGBTQ+ students have access to affirming providers. “We do initial phone screens for students wanting to connect with us,” said Avery. “From there, we have been providing one-on-one support via Zoom to students with individual therapy, as well as medication management services. We have also been running our medication and mindfulness groups and a COVID support group via Zoom.”
CAPS also provides numerous resources to support students during this time, posting content on social media to help them increase self-care skills, mindfulness practices and other skills that can be used as they navigate this difficult time. In addition, Kyle Alexander, a CAPS therapist, has also written several posts on the Healthy Heels blog specifically addressing LGBTQ+ students and the stressors they are experiencing.
However, outside regulations prevent CAPS from providing service to all who seek it. “We’re not able to support out-of-state students one-on-one due to licensing restrictions that prohibit out-of-state practice. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been trying to be more creative with the workshops, weekly mindfulness and therapeutic writing exercises we are putting out, so that all students can access some form of support from us,” said Avery, noting, “we’ve also been happy to talk with students out-of-state to help direct them to supports in their area.”
While CAPS provides a support/discussion/process group for LGBTIQA+ students during the academic year—in addition to all other services offered by CAPS—the LGBTQ Center has provided numerous support groups for years. For the past two years, they have also offered online opportunities for connection through their website’s “Want to talk?” feature, which allows one to request a conversation via phone, email or online.
“This is beneficial even when students are located on campus,” says Terri, “because for some students, it feels very intimidating or scary to walk into the Center or our programs [since] they don’t know who might be there and often, at this point, are still questioning or not out about their identity. We have also been providing online community opportunities through Zoom, including our recent Lavender Graduation, and communicate with students through Group Me and Slack.”
While this support is vital for mental health, for those who exhibit symptoms of the virus, their physical health is more likely to suffer than the rest of the population. “They are not necessarily being connected to primary care providers that can intervene before symptoms worsen due to the fact that members of the LGBTQ+ community have difficulty finding affirming healthcare providers,” noted Avery.
The return of students to campus this presents yet more challenges. “Even if students return to UNC’s campus in the fall, as is laid out by the current Roadmap, it will be more difficult to provide the community building programs of the Center (Center After Dark, Ambassadors, Student leader meetings, unstructured hanging out at the Center),” said Terri.
“The LGBTQ Center is a relatively small space and with physical distancing requirements of six feet, only about five people will be able to fit within the Center safely. LGBTIQA+-centric community spaces have been a break from the heteronormativity of other more general spaces on campus.”
While it will be a great adjustment for all of us as we slowly migrate from our homes to campus, no one can predict exactly how much more of this impact will be felt by the LGBTIQA+ members of the Carolina community. We will have to be creative about finding literal space. As we return to campus, consider enrolling in Safe Zone and Mental Health First Aid trainings to best learn how to be an ally to the LGBTIQA+ community and to those who have mental health and/or substance issues.
As One Carolina, it is up to each of us to provide a sense of safety, comfort, acknowledgment and respect for each other.
Note: CAPS recognizes the additional financial burden during this pandemic of $50 per summer sessions or $100 for the whole summer for individual services. Therefore, they have waived the CAPS summer access charge for those suffering from racial and/or COVID-related stresses.
Written by Adrianne Gibilisco, University Office for Diversity & Inclusion