In 2020, the conversation surrounding mental health has been a priority, as we’re faced with isolation, increased loneliness and heightened anxiety on a global scale. However, for most LGBTQ+ folk, these feelings are nothing new.
For generations, queer youths have been subjected to bullying and discrimination, whether that’s at schools, universities or in the workplace, alienation from family and friends, and even, as it sometimes feels, society at large—all of which can be detrimental to mental health, resulting in anxiety, depression and in some cases suicide.
According to a 2018 Stonewall study, 41 percent of trans people have experienced violence and harassment in the past 12 months in the UK, meanwhile around 36 percent of young queer students experience discrimination from university staff. Hate crimes are still being underreported, with estimates by The Trevor Project showing that numbers for victims of hate crimes could be as high as 72 percent of adolescents in the past 12 months in the US. But most alarmingly, suicide rates among the LGBTQ+ community are on the rise, particulary among young people of colour.
Thankfully, however, there are those who are fighting back, and moving the conversation forward by occupying spaces such as TikTok in order to create open dialogues about all aspects of mental health.
Here, Vogue speaks to three young trailblazers—American RuPaul’s Drag Race superstar Aquaria; trans activist and Brazilian model Valentina Sampaio, and British poet, model and activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal—about their experience of mental health and how they learned to cope with trauma.
Is there a specific moment in your life when your relationship with mental health began?
“Growing up in Brazil, being transgender was considered a mental disease by law. When I was 13 or 14, I started to feel that society was making me feel wrong about my identity and sexuality. I felt I was not fitting into the set standard, as people tried to tell me what was right and wrong. However, I started to pay attention just to myself and listen to my own needs. It took me a lot to keep fighting for who I am.”
“I had multiple life-altering moments that led to the deterioration of my mental health—they ruined my flight plan and left me broken. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I began to understand the dynamics between myself and my mental health and when I actively realised that things were going to have to be put in place in order for me to get better. I also realised nobody else was going to save me; that in order to heal, I would have to revisit things I didn’t want to—the only way out of your feelings is through them. Recently, I battled with suicidal ideation, hit the ultimate low and it changed everything, I had to prioritise and protect my mental health.”
What did healing mean to you growing up and what does it mean now?
“Healing didn’t really have much meaning until I started looking back and reminding myself that time heals all wounds. By being different versions of myself, such as being Aquaria and Giovanni [Aquaria’s birth name], dealing with those different characters and finding the balance between working and my personal life is very complex. I am starting to find a balance in managing those two different people now, however it’s hard sometimes when external factors come into play.”
“I don’t think I knew what healing was as a kid. I was desensitised to so much trauma. When I was a child, I didn’t realise that plasters and bandages are the same as antidepressants and stabilisers; that crying in school nurses’ rooms and therapists’ offices have parallels. I don’t know if my mental health has transformed or if I just got better at recognising my triggers and resorting to mechanisms in recovery.”
How do you work through the moments when past trauma arises again?
“Sometimes I have the capacity to invite old trauma in and investigate why I’m feeling like that. Whether it’s reminding myself that it is not present [now] or writing about it. I started using breathing exercises, learning to move pain around the body and even how to eliminate it for a while. I’m trying to remember to be kind to myself in those moments—punishment should not be placed on yourself for things that are out of your control.”
“It is a fight for your life and some days you get tired, you don’t want to fight anymore, but when that happens I have to actively remind myself of how strong and powerful I am”
“A big struggle for me growing up was how I was looked at when people would observe my feminine features and then hear my deeper voice. This made me reserved and I was fearful of people’s reactions, especially men, when they heard me talk. It took me a while to make my voice heard and actively participate in conversations.
“People do not realise how strong we have to be every single day. I have faced adversity in every aspect of my life: finding a job, healthcare and my human rights, something that cis-gendered people do not face. It is a fight for your life and some days you get tired, you don’t want to fight anymore, but when that happens I have to actively remind myself of how strong and powerful I am.”
In your experience, how can society have more compassion, especially when it comes to trauma and PTSD? What is one thing you would like to change?
“Compassion is key, as it goes beyond only caring about yourself. It is not stressed enough in our society—we have to continue thinking about others and how they feel, and how things can be received in such different ways.”
“Normalising talk about mental health, trauma and suicidal ideation is vital. It’s crucial for us to provide mental health services that are inclusive as PTSD and trauma are things that are often unavoidable for marginalised people. Right now, it’s key for allies to offer space to those in need.”
How have you created a support system?
“Knowing that you may not understand fully what someone is going through and actively listening is a step towards being more compassionate and finding common ground. My insecurities growing up without friends mean I’m extra cautious with people now. I find myself asking the closest people around me, ‘Is it weird if I say that?’ as I don’t have a point of reference from when I was younger.”
“It takes me a lot to reach out to people and explain how bad things are. Usually only the people in my intermediate environment will see me struggling. Breaking down in lockdown forced me to explore how I connect with friends. Creating a support network is important so you can have various sources of comfort when you are feeling shaky.”
What is one thing that is an integral part of your every day mental self-care ritual?
“I find little positive pieces in my day-to-day life and focus on them. It is important to actively love and accept yourself and recognise your value. When we reflect on ourselves in the mirror, we often find things we don’t like about our physical features, but being able to step away and transform the conversation with yourself is a powerful tool. It is all about seeing those features as your own unique value in this world.”
“Writing and journaling; a place to vent, but also a way of reflecting. You can observe triggers, thoughts and patterns a lot easier.”
As gen Zers continue to have open conversations about mental health via platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, what would you like to share with LGBTQ+ youth who are struggling?
“It’s sometimes hard to find hope in certain situations, but holding on to that sense of hope tightly, even in moments where you don’t believe in yourself is key. Treating yourself with active compassion and unreserved love is what transforms us. We need to recognise that our mental health connects with our physical health, so mental health issues should be treated with the same importance, respect and validity as physical issues.”
“Being honest with yourself and giving yourself a fair chance is essential. We have to go through ups and downs, without forgetting what our passions are and not letting life beat you down. You are a winner in your own life because you were able to get this far—it is your duty to yourself to have nothing but love for yourself.”