COVID-19 is increasing mental health issues and drug and alcohol use in the LGBTQ+ community, but support is available if you need it.
By Ben Kaye • 7th December 2020
Picture by Pexels
Recovery Worker & LGBTQ+ Lead at We Are With You
The past 12 months haven’t unfolded exactly as we expected. Plans have been cancelled, work has gone virtual and social interactions have dwindled. None of us could have imagined the possibility of spending the festive period away from our loved ones. It has been a very tough year, and many of us are only just coming to terms with the knock on effects it has had on our physical and mental health and, in some cases, increased drug and alcohol use.
The last 12 months have perhaps been particularly hard on the LGBTQ+ community. LGBTQ+ people are also likely to live alone, particularly older adults. Because of the society we grow up in, we know that LGBTQ+ people are also more affected by common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, compared to the general population. We also know that many LGBTQ+ people do not address these issues.
With restrictions looking likely to remain into the new year, it’s important we better understand how lockdown has impacted our mental health and how we can better support those affected, particularly those in vulnerable communities. We also need to look at the effects of rising mental health issues on drug and alcohol use. Last month Helsa and With You conducted a survey on the effects of lockdown on the LGBTQ+ community. It highlighted a number of key issues and gave us a really good idea where we need to start.
One common factor in many people’s stories is social isolation and boredom. 50% of all people who responded reported feeling more socially isolated - not surprising considering the closure of many social spaces such as bars or gyms and the rules around household mixing. Many people confirmed that this had had a knock on effect on their mental health. 70% of people who responded to our survey have experienced higher levels of social anxiety since the pandemic began.
One person said “The worst thing has been feeling in limbo and not seeing an end in sight to the restrictions and isolation”
Lukaz*, a gay man living in London during the pandemic, has noticed the effect that the past year has had on his mental health.
“Now that lockdown is likely to be extended in some way or form, I have been feeling a little anxious again. In summer the days are longer and after work I could go out for a cycle or to the park with the dog… Now at 4pm it’s already dark and cold and I have little motivation to go out or do anything. I have noticed that I’m starting to find it difficult to get out of the house at all. I get anxious at the thought of it and I can see this could be an issue at the end of all this.”
In our survey, we found that one of the biggest areas of concern is how members of the community are using alcohol or drugs to deal with mental health issues. Of those surveyed, 47% are drinking alcohol or using drugs more frequently since the pandemic began. Three quarters of those said that they were either ‘somewhat concerned’ or ‘seriously concerned’ about this increase.
My substance abuse has increased as I can work from home and don't have to worry about 'smelling like alcohol
At With You, 15% of those accessing our alcohol and drug support webchat since July identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, a percentage that has slowly but steadily increased since launch.
Lukaz also found himself drinking more alcohol in lockdown. “Before lockdown I would have a glass or two of red wine in the evening after dinner. During lockdown I would start craving alcohol early in the day and sometimes come evening I would have already consumed a whole bottle of wine or other forms of alcohol.”
Others found it easier to use drugs and alcohol during the day due to the lack of social or work commitments. One person said: “My substance abuse has increased as I can work from home and don't have to worry about 'smelling like alcohol'. I have also been partaking in experimental drugs to stave boredom.”
Another said: “I have developed a substance abuse issue for the first time in my life. I turned to a drug to deal with isolation and became addicted.”
Despite the increase in mental health and alcohol and drug issues, many people felt unable to access support during the pandemic. During the first lockdown, a survey commissioned by With You found that 60% of people were less likely to access health services. In this more recent survey, one in two people said they felt the need to access mental health support during the pandemic, but 35% of those said they were unable to do so.
The news isn’t all negative. Services are still open and many people are finding the new ways of accessing support work even better for them.
Aaron*, who has used With You services said: “If you had asked me 8 months ago if I could quit Class A drugs during lockdown I’d have laughed. Yet here I sit, sober and happier than I have been in a long time having done exactly that.
“When I needed it most, the support I was desperate for was offered and offered fully. The fact that it was and is, is something that I am eternally grateful for.”
If you are having difficulties with your mental health, there are some steps that you can take to start feeling better. There isn’t one set way to look after your mental health, but there are some tools that have been proven to work for lots of people.
· Connect with others – It’s important for us to feel supported, valued and loved, so if you are having a hard time, try reaching out to close friends and family. Just having a chat with a friend or loved one can do wonders for your mental health.
· Get active – Even a small amount of exercise can help to improve your mood and reduce stress. Try to find a type of exercise that you enjoy - maybe jogging, cycling or yoga - and practise it a few times a week, even if it's just for 15 minutes.
· Take care of your body – Rest is important for both your physical and mental health, so try to make sure you are getting good sleep. Try to eat a healthy and balanced diet where you can, as this also impacts your mental health.
· Reach out for support - If you feel like you need a bit more support, reaching out for support from mental health services can be very helpful. Support is out there, and you don’t need to go through hard times alone.
If you think you could benefit from talking with a therapist, Helsa has a network of LGBTQ+ partner therapists that can offer support around many different mental health issues. You can also use Helsa Match to find a therapist that is right for you and your mental health needs.
If you do feel like you are drinking or taking drugs a bit more than you’d like, cutting down is a really positive step. Even small changes can make a big difference to your life. Visit our website for more advice and tools to help you make a change.
If you’re looking for more support a good first step is to access our free, confidential webchat. Our friendly trained advisors can offer you helpful advice and support or can connect you to a face to face service in your area.
When I needed it most, the support I was desperate for was offered and offered fully. The fact that it was and is, is something that I am eternally grateful for.
As a recovery worker in Bournemouth, I have seen many people seeking support through our services, with lots of success. With just a little bit of support, it is possible to make a change to your alcohol or drug use. There is advice out there, and you can talk to someone if you need to.
If you’d like some extra reassurance, we’re running a specific LGBTQ+ drop-in every Wednesday from 10am-5pm. During those hours it will be me, Ben Kaye, who’s online. I’m a trained recovery worker, the LGBTQ+ Lead at We Are With You in Bournemouth and an expert in chemsex, and drug and alcohol issues among gay and bisexual men and MSM.