In July 2019, the Bangalore-based White Swan Foundation for Mental Health published an e-book titled Mental Health 101: LGBTQIA+ Edition. It is a useful resource that has been diligently put together for readers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, or as belonging to the wider LGBTQIA+ community, or as allies. I would recommend it to school teachers who are keen on learning about experiences such as dysphoria, coming out and transitioning that are crucial in the lives of students who are often marginalized on account of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics.
Mental Health 101: LGBTQIA+ Edition is free to download from www.whiteswanfoundation.org It has been developed using inputs gathered from queer persons, mental health professionals, activists and academics. This approach to knowledge creation is commendable because queer persons are often denied the agency to speak about their lives in a manner aligned with their own understanding of who they are. Moreover, mental health professionals are often disconnected from the grassroots work of activist movements. This e-book actively encourages readers to think about the impact of oppressive social structures on the mental health of individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Here is an interview with Manoj Chandran, CEO of the White Swan Foundation, who responded to questions over email.
Question: How would you explain the connection between mental health, gender identity and sexual orientation to a school teacher accessing this e-book? Let’s imagine that they have no formal academic qualifications in the study of these topics.
Answer: We now know that mental health issues are caused by a combination of three factors — genetics, psychology and environmental factors. Environmental factors can be influenced. For a student who identifies as LGBTQIA+, adverse and exclusionary social environments can affect their mental well-being. The book will throw light on how one could empathize with such students, and extend support to them.
Question: I was struck by this assertion in your book. “The vast majority of people recognize their own gender and sexual identity in their teen years, a time that is already vulnerable, and more so if you are queer.” What is your plan for disseminating this book, and reaching out to teachers, and counselors who work closely with teenagers?
Answer: Teachers can be great catalysts in such students finding the right support, and taking control of their lives. We already have a school mental health programme in which we are reaching out to teachers of schools in Bangalore, helping them understand signs that a student may need help. We will be sharing this e-book with them. We also hope that the e-book, later being made available in different languages, will be downloaded and publicized among stakeholders such as teachers and principals.
Question: Could you please talk a bit about the process of collaborating with academics and activists working on LGBTQIA+ issues? What kind of insights did they bring in?
Answer: At White Swan Foundation, we play a journalistic role. Any content we curate comes from sources who are relevant either because they have a lived experience, or because they are experts who have studied the issues we are writing about. Each expert we spoke to brought in their own experience of the subject — whether it was a counselor who brought in their perspective based on their clients’ experiences, or a lawyer who helped us understand how legalities can impact someone from the community. There have been many people who have helped us understand the issues faced by people from the community, and helped us make the e-book relevant. One of the crucial insights we received was that the social and emotional struggles members of the community experience are often more severe than the mental health issues they experience.
Question: The practice of using preferred pronouns is briefly mentioned in the book. Would you mind talking about it in some detail here, in the context of mental health implications for queer persons?
Answer: The increasing trend of using preferred pronouns is a positive step towards providing greater identity and acceptance to the marginalized genders. It would help build greater empathy among people of different orientations and identities. We also hope that the trend will help people open up about their identity without accepting any adverse repercussions.
Question: It is commendable that you have published a book of this kind. Mental health practitioners have been deeply complicit in the violence faced by queer persons, and you have hinted at this history in the book. Would you say that it’s time for this community of practitioners to make amends? If yes, what could that process look like?
Answer: This, we believe, would be better answered by a mental health professional.
Question: To what extent, do you think, can legal knowledge be empowering for the mental health of queer persons? Would you say that this e-book would have been more comprehensive if it included basic information about the Mental Healthcare Act of 2017, the 2018 Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill?
Answer: I agree with you on this. Helping the members of the community learn about their rights can certainly empower them. However, the scope of this edition of the book was limited to covering the healthcare and social environment-related perspectives. White Swan Foundation, on its portal, covers some of the legal and regulatory aspects. Based on the feedback we receive from our readers, we will decide on the inclusion of these topics in the subsequent editions of the e-book.
Question: This e-book focuses on the mental health stressors connected with being queer. Apart from the discrimination and the marginalization that need to be talked about, would you agree that it is equally important for a mental health manual to acknowledge the freedom, joy, strength, meaning and resilience that individuals experience in identifying as queer?
Answer: Mental healthcare experts point out that a positive, inclusive and supportive social environment that does not interfere with one’s basic rights is essential for the mental well-being of an individual. Most often members of the LGBTQIA+ community are deprived of these rights, which can certainly impact their mental well-being. One of the key reasons for the negative attitude among people is their lack of knowledge of the subject. We strongly believe that, by providing the right knowledge, through products such as this e-book, people will begin to demonstrate greater empathy towards members of the community.
Question: If a school teacher came to you asking for recommendations about books, art and movies they could look up to learn how to be better allies to their students, what would you recommend?
Answer: One of the key requirements for a teacher to become an ally to their student is empathy. They must be able to understand the reasons behind the emotional and behaviour traits of their students. And this can come from right knowledge. To begin with, we would certainly recommend that they spend some time on the White Swan Foundation portal, which provides rich knowledge on adolescent mental health. With the foundation-level knowledge from our portal, we would encourage them to read several books on youth mental health and well-being.
Question: What are the ways in which people can collaborate with White Swan Foundation to widen the reach of this e-book?
Answer: The e-book is available for free download on our portal. We would encourage people to understand the value it can potentially add to anyone’s life. For an LGBTQIA+ person, the basic knowledge provided in the e-book can be greatly encouraging to identify their emotional distress and seek professional support. To those who are or can be potential caregivers or allies, the e-book can be a valuable guide.
(About the interviewer: Chintan Girish Modi is a fellow with the Prajnya Trust, creating resources to sensitize teachers about LGBTQIA+ identities, experiences and issues. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The images used above are from http://www.whiteswanfoundation.org