This story first published online at North Carolina Health News.  

When the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the LGBT Center of Raleigh created mental health support groups for LGBTQ people struggling with mental illness, they didn’t expect to garner membership from across the country.

Those virtual spaces not only hosted youth from rural areas normally out of their reach in North Carolina but also young people from Florida, California, and even Canada.

“It was interesting to see how many people were finding this group as something that they wanted,” said Annie Schmidt, executive director of NAMI of Wake County.

Since the dawn of the internet, members of the LGBTQ community have created and used virtual spaces to find community and support. Because the COVID-19 pandemic forced many aspects of life online, digital mental health “safe spaces” have made their mark as a crucial resource.

Like other marginalized groups, the LGBTQ community has been disproportionately affected by the mental toll of the pandemic.

More than 80 percent of LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 surveyed by the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth, said the pandemic made their living situation more stressful. Some 70 percent of those surveyed said they had “poor” mental health during the COVID pandemic. 

Schmidt said she reached out to the LGBT Center of Raleigh to see what resources they could provide to help. The LGBT Center identified a gap when it came to LGBTQ youth.

“Our goal is to be supporting the mental health needs of everyone in all communities,” Schmidt said. “And we know that there are a lot of disparities within the LGBT community. A lot of it’s due to trauma and discrimination.”

The result was a virtual mental health peer support group that has met twice a month on Zoom since September 2020. The group is open to people of all ages, but it skews young, said facilitator Peg Morrison, who is also the director of programs at the state chapter of NAMI.

Because the group is peer support, that means that everyone attending, including both of the two facilitators, can raise their hands and say they both struggle with a mental health problem and are a member of the LGBTQ community.

Continuing legacy of virtual LGBTQ spaces

LGBTQ youth have persevered through the pandemic to make spaces where they have community, said Lora Pilcher, youth and family initiative coordinator at the LGBT Center of Raleigh.

Some of the youngest members of the center have created virtual spaces on Discord, a platform that had previously been used predominantly by gamers. There they can chat, watch movies, and even play video games together on a private server that is safe and moderated by the center, Pilcher said.

“Throughout the pandemic they kind of supported each other in everything from socially transitioning, trouble with parents, trouble of coming out or being back in the closet because they’re stuck at home and not an affirming space, to just helping each other with homework,” Pilcher said. “It’s just been a really supportive and affirming space.”

Ash Hiser, a transgender man who founded TransGens—a discussion group for parents and their transgender or gender non-conforming children co-sponsored by the center—when he was in high school, said platforms like Discord helped fill the gap of in-person meet-ups.

“It’s a nice way to make connections outside of the official group setting where you may only see someone once a week or once a month, depending on what events you go to or whatever,” Hiser said.

But since the internet’s inception, LGBTQ people have found community on the internet, said JP Przewoznik, clinical assistant professor of social work at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

“In a lot of ways, despite mainstream society, we have found ways to connect with each other to mitigate loneliness,” Przewoznik said.

“My site to mitigate loneliness was not a virtual space,” Przewoznik said. “It was a physical space. It was a brick-and-mortar location known as the gay bar, a place that kind of is going out of existence. But these sort of chat rooms serve similar purposes.”

A hybrid model

“Virtual spaces have been and continue to be incredibly important for LGBTQ+ people in general,” Przewoznik said. “They are spaces where we are able to find comrades who are sharing our lived experiences to some degree. So I see that continuing and growing.”

But the LGBTQ community is not a monolith, they said, and so the pandemic affected different parts of the community in nuanced ways.

Many of the conversations the TransGens group has had are the same as before the pandemic, Hiser said. Virtual living gave some transgender youth who were newly out the opportunity to adjust to living as their authentic selves.

“If someone is newly out,” Hiser said, “they’re able to get more comfortable with their families and with themselves at home without having to also deal with the kids at school and stuff like that. There’s challenges as well, like with some of the learning systems that they use online, it’s hard for people to maybe change their names on there.”

Some support group regulars before the pandemic dropped off when programs transitioned online, Pilcher and Schmidt said, while new members who would not have been able to join the in-person groups due to geographic or transportation reasons have flocked to the programming.

To make the groups more inclusive, NAMI Wake County also provides digital safe spaces for those who may not be able to access their programming at home, so people can access reliable Wifi from inside their cars at various points throughout the county.

Originally, the goal was to transition the NAMI LGBT support groups to in-person at the LGBT Center of Raleigh once the pandemic eased. But because virtual programs have become such a vital resource to people outside of the geographic area, a hybrid model has become the goal.

“We decided to have it virtual with the pandemic,” Schmidt said. “And once we’re both operating programs more in person, our goal is to be able to offer it in person as well but still have a virtual component.”

For some people, K-12 schools are a safe space, Przewoznik said, depending on whether there are supportive adults and also whether students have unsupportive or violent home environments. For others, schools are not a safe space. A 2018 survey by the Human Rights Campaign found only a quarter of LGBTQ youth say they feel safe at school.

In that same vein, while virtual spaces have been revolutionary for some members of the community, others without access to broadband and other resources that would allow them to go on the internet could be excluded.

“We really have to have to invest in centering the most marginalized among us as LGBTQ+ people,” Przewoznik said, “to ensure that folks who do not have access to the sort of level of resources that, let’s say, people like myself have are getting what they need to thrive, and are able to feel in community and are able to feel like they are getting their psychological needs met.”

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