In 2019, I was diagnosed with a chronic mental illness. “What is recovery and how do I find it?” was a burning question for me. Months later, I found my version of recovery , self-acceptance, and support as I spent time with the queer community of Ahmedabad. Recently, as a part of my Master’s program, I conducted a research study based on my experience with mental health.
I focused on the importance of queer support groups and queer-affirmative therapy. My qualitative study was titled, ‘Experiences of non-heterosexual women in mental health services’. I interviewed 12 queer-identifying women. Participant names have been changed for anonymity. This article attempts to discuss narratives in queer support in mental health services and peer support  in India.
The research was conducted with the belief that queer community-led peer support would be more desirable than therapy for queer-identifying women. Jayanti (23, non-binary pansexual, Mumbai), a research participant said, “I think the community is important to the LGBT experience,…It takes courage to share. The fact that people are sharing, shows that they feel safe.”
As data collection began, several individuals shared and unraveled their narratives. The study observed minority stress impacting all its participants. Minority stress is the high-level stress faced by people belonging to stigmatised and marginalised groups. Several outcomes of minority stress were observed in this study – feelings of guilt and shame, internalised homophobia, experiencing queerphobia, lack of acceptance, and family-related stress. 10 out of 12 participants shared their experience of being pathologised due to their gender and/or sexuality. Minority stress also affects help-seeking behaviour and Wandrekar & Nigudkar pointed out that, “Researchers and reviewers have commented on how mental health care professionals often pathologize these (queer) identities, and stigma and discrimination by health care providers often impact access to treatment ”
“The community’s consistent refrain of having “no one” to talk to, made the problem of mental health crises stand out during my conversations,” said Vinay Chandran in a 2018 article.
Participants, even the ones attending peer groups, could not define ‘peer support’. Ira (22, queer woman, Kochi) expressed her lack of clarity on the understanding of peer support and how it works. Worried about opening up, Ira expressed that having people her age in the support group would make it more relatable.
During the interviews, I was exposed to different types of support groups. Three participants considered queer community at work, feminist organizations, and student-led bodies as peer support groups. Five participants had accessed an online queer support group during the pandemic on platforms like Discord and Zoom. Most of the online support group participants seemed to find support through managing loneliness, discussions on shared struggles, and exchanging tips on navigating heteronormativity every day.
Sakhi (23, queer woman, Gurgaon) is a part of an offline support group of queer women across the country. “This support group does not engage in mental health-focused interventions directly. However, they organise treks, picnics, and group meet-ups.” The participant added that this social support also improved their mental health as they found solidarity and reduced their feeling of otherness and marginalisation.
Every participant talked about the positive impact of peer support on their mental health. However, contrary to my hypothesis, 83% of people said that both individual therapy and peer support are essential for their mental wellbeing.
Akansha, a lesbian woman, is 29 years old and is completing her Ph.D. She had a positive experience with an online support group, “During the pandemic, it was quite lonely and I realized while living with my partner that she’s my only friend, my only queer friend and that wasn’t great. So I thought it would be nice to have queer support…interacting with queer people without being judged.”
Some participants also added that peer support helped them accept themselves while individual therapy helped make connections between issues. Sandra (23, asexual woman, Ahmedabad) added, “Even though we share the same kind of loneliness, it’s not a gap that can be bridged…it can become a top-down kind of a session where you can just vent out things. But I don’t think it offers the help a therapist offers, the practical tools, the kind of understanding of making those links and those connections. So I guess that is the difference for me.” Participants also reported that while the peer support they received wasn’t always mental health-focused, it helped them feel better and offered a sense of solidarity. However, talking to people can also be daunting for someone in distress. Ira’s therapist recommended a support group but she was still hesitant. She only went 1-2 times but she shared what affirmed her emotions, “They would say, ‘What do you think about this? Have you experienced the same thing?’… things like that. That was very affirming…I was pretty sure at the end of the session that this was something I’d be coming back to if I had the time.”
Unstructured peer support
Many participants were in unstructured support groups like college queer collectives or informal peer groups. Each participant mentioned that they missed having an accessible queer community in both physical and online spaces. A participant in her mid-twenties, Varuna (26, queer woman, Delhi) while talking about her workspace shared, “In that space, I feel this is the closest I’ve come to engaging in queer movements. It’s a nice space to be in and it’s just nice to be surrounded by so many queer people…And, of late, a lot of people in positions of power are also queer folx.” Shanti (23, pansexual woman, London) shared her experiences of support offered by her peers in a feminist organization. She shared that vibrant discussions on LGBTQIA+ struggles, laws, and identities were some key elements of peer support. Shanti believed that India was in a dynamic space, “…this is where the revolution comes from, or where liberation begins. I really hope we can keep growing and finding sources to grow and I hope more women feel safe expressing themselves in such spaces.”
Varuna also discussed the impostor syndrome  experienced in queer settings, “I feel that every bisexual woman always feels ‘I’m not queer enough, I feel like I am not as welcome in the queer community as some other people are. I wouldn’t say I haven’t been part of movements…Even before I understood, I was queer, I realized that’s something that I identified with. I was really curious to read more about it, learn more about it or consume any other form of queer media”. Being in a queer-affirming organisation now, helps her overcome the feeling of being an impostor.
Several participants felt uncomfortable and seemed to experience impostor syndrome every time they participated in queer support groups. However, for at least one participant, Varuna, there seemed to be direct relation between emotions, thoughts and action. Varuna expressed her guilt and its relation to family stress, work, acceptance and academics. This played out in her participation in queer groups as well. She later said that she would prefer individual queer-affirmative therapy over peer support.
Talking about their preference for therapy or a peer support group, Sandra suggested, “I think it depends from person to person, a lot of people aren’t looking for a logical articulation of their feelings. Some people aren’t ready for that. Some people just want to vent … I think maybe going to support groups is a good segue to going for one-on-one therapy, getting comfortable with sharing before you go to a therapist where all the focus is on you…Maybe that’s not exactly what you’re looking for. Maybe you just need to feel seen for a while. It’s like when you’re talking to a friend, maybe you just want them to listen.”
Shanti added, “I think I would love to have both actually. I think to deal with my personal trauma, a professional therapist could be better, I can open up more easily and not just be completely undone in front of people. But then, it also helps a lot to just sit around with people and see the ways in which they have been impacted, like shared moments of exclusion, and just how to feel safer together and to see more other pan or bisexual people or trans people who are doing well who are ready to seek out help, ready to help each other. I think both of them are fantastic”.
There were many perspectives to this discussion. Varuna added, “I feel like I need all the support. I feel like I would be left feeling dissatisfied (in a group setting) and of course, the way that you engage in an individual space is very different.”
Here, the joy of meeting people they can relate to seemed to be the major reason behind the participants’ positive experience of community-led peer groups. Research in other countries finds that support groups are vital to deal with internalised stigma or homonegativity. However, there is a lack of awareness and disillusionment about mental health and peer-led services in India. This leads to reduced access to mental health services and a lack of clarity about therapy, group therapy, and peer support groups. Many people didn’t go back to peer support groups but they liked knowing they had that option available. Help-seeking and finding therapists were tricky for queer women as often their parents controlled or managed their finances.
India still lacks feminist research on peer support groups and community-based interventions for queer folx in the field of mental health. More theory-based resources are also necessary to equip mental health practitioners. As Wandrekar and Nigudkar pointed out, there are very few intervention studies outlining specific therapeutic models adapted to the Indian context and designed for the LGBTQIA+ community.
While conducting my study I found that my initial hypothesis that queer community-led peer support would be more desirable than therapy for queer-identifying women was incorrect. I got the opportunity to engage in free-flowing discussions on queer mental health, building an understanding of the complexities of trauma and recovery and the value of agency. I discovered how each participant had her own journey and understanding of recovery, queerness, and mental health support.
Wandrekar, J. R., & Nigudkar, A. S. (2020). What Do We Know About LGBTQIA+ Mental Health in India? A Review of Research From 2009 to 2019. Journal of Psychosexual Health, 2(1), 26–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/2631831820918129
Chandran, V. (2018). Talk to me – Queer Mental Healthcare. In Plainspeak. Retrieved from https://www.tarshi.net/inplainspeak/talk-to-me-queer-mental-healthcare/
Recovery is often described as a process, meaning it isn’t always straightforward. You might have days where you feel well, and times when your symptoms return. If you’ve discovered techniques and treatments that work for you, you’re likely to feel more confident and less overwhelmed by your symptoms.
A group of people who meet regularly and share common experiences, or face similar challenges together as equals.
Doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. Many question whether they’re deserving of accolades.
Cover Image: Photo by John Schaidler on Unsplash