May is Mental Health Awareness Month so we sat down for a conversation with Ryan Schutt (former Team Lead for TWU Mental Health Services) on wellbeing, mental health, and the queer community.
Why is mental health for queer and questioning folks an important topic?
Ryan Schutt: It goes without saying that mental health is something of great concern for everyone. Research indicates that LGBTQ2+ and questioning folks are at a greater risk of experiencing mental illness or languishing in their mental health than cis/straight persons. Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination all coalesce to create social conditions that negatively impact LGBTQ2+ persons’ mental health and well-being.
One TWU: Absolutely. Queer mental health matters because we are people. Queer folks are at a higher risk to experience adverse mental health because they often are made to feel small, unloved, and unwelcome due to oppression rooted in homophobia, transphobia, and ignorance.
Why are queer folks at TWU particularly vulnerable to adverse mental health?
Ryan: Experiences of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination can show up in many areas of daily life: work, home, church, and educational settings. The impact of these experiences are uniquely felt. The nature of an educational setting favours the discussion and debate of ideas and abstract concepts. Sexuality and gender can be “abstracted” to the point that we can miss the person entirely. LGBTQ2+ folks may feel as though they are a topic, rather than a person imbued with dignity.
Additionally, dorms can be difficult spaces for many LGBTQ2+ folks to live in. Finally, many LGBTQ2+ folks have had painful experiences in faith contexts.
One TWU: Yes to all that. TWU, a Christian university with–– what they think to be ––core principles of radical love and hospitality, continues to be known for its homophobia and unsafe living conditions.
Many Christian traditions believe that gender is binary, and that homosexuality is a sin. The queer community encompasses people who are LGBTQ2+, and are non-binary, and so to be surrounded by people who believe they innately shouldn’t exist–– or that they need to repress themselves because they “shouldn’t” love who they love ––is harmful and carries long-term negative effects.
How has the pandemic affected queer mental health?
Ryan: COVID-19 has added even more stress to daily living. Typical formal and informal supports have been difficult to come by, exacerbating existing mental health concerns for LGBTQ2+ students. Isolation and other factors, such as unsafe housing and job losses, have contributed to further mental health challenges for many LGBTQ2+ persons.
Essential mental health services and supports have shifted online. Not everyone may be comfortable with, or able to, access supports virtually. We all know, too, that Zoom fatigue can leave us feeling exhausted and so virtual access to supports or reaching out to friends and communities may be more difficult.
One TWU: This past year has been so tough in so many ways. Social isolation may be especially challenging for people who are LGBTQ2+ as they may be forced to live with an unsupportive family or in difficult dorm situations. While virtual communities can provide meaningful connections, losing the ability to have in-person social supports with other queer folks continues to take a toll for many of us.
How would you answer someone who says: “but I'm just one person... how would I make a difference?"
Ryan: Fundamental to mental health and well-being is connection. We are relational beings and fundamentally share in life together even when we are different. One feature of positive, safe, relational connection is our willingness to accept–– to welcome into our own awareness ––the suffering of another, to empty ourselves, and to make space to be with and for another. Attending to the wounds of another is a difficult calling. But it is an essential one, rooted in the very sinews of our humanity.
The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this with exceptional clarity. I find a maxim, attributed to Louis Pasteur, an essential one to live by: “One does not ask of one who suffers: What is your country and what is your religion? One merely says: You suffer, that is enough for me…”
One TWU: Agreed, connection and empathy is fundamental. A thousand voices are much louder than one. No matter how confident a student might be coming to TWU as a queer person or as an ally, it can be disheartening when there are more discouraging voices than uplifting ones. Safer community and connections make all the difference.
Imagine you are queer for a moment. Imagine that you learn that being different is okay. Imagine that you feel safe and nurtured in your families, culture, and society. Imagine that you develop a strong sense of connection to a diverse community. Imagine that you are taught to love what makes you different. This is what's possible with your help.
Queer folks at TWU don’t need half-hearted tolerance, we need all the help we can get in creating safer spaces that are welcoming, inclusive, and hospitable.