On the other side of the closet door – the problems plaguing the LGBTQ+ community

***TRIGGER WARNING: References to sexual assault and substance abuse***

“Two-thirds of LGBT people avoid holding hands in public, for fear of negative reactions”

UK Governtment Survey

This was the finding from a 2017 government survey of more than 100,000 LGBT people in the UK. While great strides have been made for gay rights in the West, true equality is still a pipe dream. 

In India, even now, where the majority of educated younger people are more accepting than older generations, ‘coming out’ remains a fantasy for most. The creation of various LGBTQ+ support organisations and online activism has greatly propagated the message of acceptance among the youth. However, awareness about alternate gender identities and sexualities hasn’t yet penetrated the core sensibilities and value systems of the traditional Indian family. The situation is far worse in rural India where honour killings and systemic family-sponsored corrective-rape are still a horrific reality. 

Given this extreme context, talking about the more nuanced issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community, though important, seems frivolous. While the life experience of an LGBTQ+ person is often compressed into the, ‘coming out’ or ‘transition’ event, shedding light on other day-to-day issues faced by this community might help provide a different perspective, a better understanding and hence, hopefully, greater awareness.

Here are a few of our blog articles covering a range of issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community:

The Invisible Spectrums – Asexuality & Aromanticism

A Look at LGBTQ Issues – Relationships, Religion and Access to Resources

Does a Rainbow Flag equal Inclusivity?

The Rainbow Struggle

Crucial progress in the West has been both a boon and a bane for the LGBTQ+ community in the other parts of the world. The legalization of gay marriage in the United States was celebrated across the globe. Pride month and Pride parades are held to celebrate the community and commemorate the long history of struggle for equal rights, in particular the Stonewall riot, the first significant uprising that happened in New York City. This Western progress is inspiring but incomplete and there is a long way to go in making progress, especially in countries like India.

However, an interesting change is taking place in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.  In 2002, Tori DeAngelis wrote for the American Psychological Association cover story that LGBT clients are facing a new generation of issues.

“In the 32 years since patrons of the Stonewall Inn challenged police who raided the now-famous gay nightclub, lesbians, gays and bisexuals have grown in personal and political power, creating their own communities and finding acceptance in traditional ones as well.

Conversations taking place in today’s therapy offices reflect this change. Although many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people still bring issues of discrimination and fear of rejection to their psychologists’ offices, they are just as likely to discuss such mainstream issues as parenting and fears about aging.”

A new generation of issues for LGBT clients, Tori DeAngelis

52 years after the Stonewall Riots, and nearly two decades since DeAngelis’ article came out, the issues being discussed in the United States have moved on to topics that aren’t even on the radar for the rest of the world. In a controversially headlined article, The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over, published in the The Atlantic (June 28 2019), an American news and literary magazine, the author records,

As the topics of conversation at America’s largest assembly of gay activists (The National LGBTQ Task Force) suggests, America is rapidly becoming a post-gay country.

The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over, James Kirchick

While more and more causes are being brought under the umbrella of LGBTQ+ rights in Western countries, progress is woefully lacking in the rest of the world. In a host of countries such as China, Taiwan and the Middle-East, people of the LGBTQ+ community fear for their lives. In this case, activists and voters in more liberal countries must press for legislation and foreign policy to help the international LGBTQ+ community’s still very real fight for basic rights. Although the rainbow struggle for a variety of wide-ranging issues encompassed under the LGBTQ+ agenda is a sign of progress, the fight must maintain a focus to champion LGBTQ+ rights across international borders.

Internalized Homophobia in a Heteronormative Society

For many individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, even fundamental rights and basic personal liberties remain out of reach, including the right to express oneself and the right to love and be together with a loved one. Confessing their sexuality to family might get them forced into conversion therapy. They can get bullied for simply being themselves, for walking, or even speaking a certain way. Even holding the hand of a loved one can result in violence. The results of the UK government survey found that more than 40 percent of the respondents have experienced a hate crime at some point, and 25 percent of them have concealed their identities from their families.

And it is not just the actions of others – the difficulties faced by individuals of the LGBTQ+ spectrum can often come from within the self. In a Huffington Post article, ‘Together Alone’ that went viral within the LGBTQ+ community, the author, Michael Hobbes draws from his friends’ experiences in disturbing detail about how loneliness and mental health issues plague them post-coming out.

“For years I’ve noticed the divergence between my straight friends and my gay friends. While one half of my social circle has disappeared into relationships, kids and suburbs, the other has struggled through isolation and anxiety, hard drugs and risky sex.”

Together Alone, Michael Hobbes

People who are part of the LGBTQ+ community have a substantially increased risk of suffering from a range of mental health issues. One that is seldomly spoken about is internalized homophobia. The Rainbow Project offers a simple description: As we grow up we are taught the values of our society. In our homophobic, heterosexist, discriminatory culture, we may learn negative ideas about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. 

When someone from the queer community calls out one of their own for being, ‘too gay’, or ‘not gay enough’, it is these internal biases that keep them from complete acceptance. Fear of discovery, discomfort with other gay people, and engaging in humor that stigmatizes LGBTQ+ people are a few examples of how internalised homophobia can be expressed. This hurdle prevents LGBTQ people from fully accepting themselves and their peers, making it that much harder to find community.

In a different Slate article, critiquing Hobbes for focusing exlusively on an overly cis white male perspective and solely talking about the problems of a group of people who are the “A-gays”, the author doesn’t disagree that gay loneliness is real, but adds to it the wide range of unique problems faced by other, often overlooked parts of the LGBTQ+ community.

“In the community, we have a name for these people: A-gays. They enforce the social rules of a certain kind of urban gay space, implicitly or sometimes explicitly excluding other types of gays (and almost all queer people) who don’t fit their strange standards. They are the donors and board members of the big gay nonprofits, the setters of the mainstream gay agenda.”

Gay Loneliness Is Real—but “Bitchy, Toxic” Culture Isn’t the Full Story, Ben Miller

The lack of safe spaces for non-cis gay sub-groups is a major contributing factor to the toxic culture within the gay community. While online forums are good to start a conversation and seek anonymous camaraderie, especially for youth, this is often insufficient to counteract the hate and negativity that exists elsewhere. Further, the anonymous nature of the interaction doesn’t create a lasting bond, just a temporary escape from the feeling of isolation. For adults, online dating and hookup apps quench the need for company and validation but the dangers of catfishing sometimes with catastrophic consequences is always a very real possibility. Others resort to meeting people at bars or clubs, which might be intimidating to some where they might be forced into uncomfortable situations with substance abuse.

Why Substance Abuse is Higher within the LGBTQ Community

Call to Action – Creating a place in the Society

Reintegration into society – one that is free from both discriminatory heteronormativity as well as  the toxic and ultra-exclusive LGBTQ+ one, is the one true solution to these wide-ranging problems. Creating a place in society through institutionalization and rigorous protection of the fundamental rights regardless of gender or sexual orientation is the first step.

A 75-point action plan created in response to the UK Government Survey of the LGBT people outlines several key measures that need to be enacted to protect them from injustices and hate crimes. One of the salient points was that the government will work with their Department of Health and Social Care to improve mental healthcare for LGBT people. 

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP India) in collaboration with AIM NITI Aayog jointly launched the Youth Co:Lab, aimed at accelerating youth-led social entrepreneurship and innovation in India. One of the focus areas in selecting the community-led initiatives for incubation was LGBTQ+ allyship. This is a promising start. Our very own peer-support virtual chat service, LonePack Buddy, was one among the 30 initiatives selected across the nation in this specific focus area. Trained listeners are available 24×7 to confide in anonymously and this service is perfectly suited to address the problem of isolation and loneliness among LGBTQ+ people.  

Community centres are the need of the hour – open from early in the morning to late at night, to meet others of varied backgrounds within the LGBTQ+ community and welcome to not just to those suffering from a crisis. The opening of one such centre by The Humsafar Trust in Delhi provides hope that this concern is being addressed. But this needs to be replicated in all major cities, towns and villages.

A Novel Inspiration

The words of Nadiya Hussian from the show Great British Bake Off to her children are especially apt here.

“Here’s a thing that I tell my kids. I say ‘elbows out’. There’s a rule in our house: whenever you feel like you don’t fit in or feel like there’s a place that isn’t there for you, stick your elbows out – not physically but metaphorically. Get those elbows out and make space…’”

Nadiya Hussain, Great British Bake Off

When a heteronormative society scorns and shames an LGBTQ+ couple for something as simple as holding hands, when a toxic “A-Gay” marginalizes a person of their own community as ‘too gay’, and when self-doubt or internalized homophobia forces a person to fit into a rigid mold, we can reflect on these words – ‘Elbows out, make space’. LGBTQ+ Pride is a symbol of that very spirit – as the voices grow and the fight is won inch by inch, together, we can make space for this community.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Expressive Arts Therapy ft. Avantika Malhautra

Throughout our journey in Season 2, we’ve introduced ourselves to and explored various alternative means of therapy that can aid our mental health and help us express ourselves better.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Today we’re talking to Avantika Malhautra, a psychologist and registered Expressive Arts Therapist. She’s the founder of Soul Canvas – Art for Wellness, and a faculty member at the Dance Movement Therapy training courses with the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Hey, Avantika!

Avantika- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. 

Avantika- Thank you for having me.

Valerie- As mentioned earlier, we’ve had people with backgrounds in different modalities of alternative therapy introduce us to art, dance, music, writing, narrative therapy and much more. How does Expressive Arts Therapy differ from these forms?

Avantika-  Expressive Arts Therapy is really an inter-modal process which means that you’re moving between different art forms within a particular session. With each of those intermodal transfers from one art form to another, there is an exploration of another layer and depth that is revealed in that process of using the arts for self-expression. It really taps into this multi-sensory approach. Some of us might notice that we are more visual, we think and perceive the world more visually, for some of us it’s more based on sound and auditory sensations, for some of us it’s about touch and feel and the kinesthetics of it. 

Expressive Arts Therapy includes all of those different art modalities because when it was founded in the 1970s by Paolo Knill and Shaun McNiff, and then others who came along on the journey, they were all artists from different fields. They were musicians, visual artists, but realising that there were overlaps between the artforms itself, they included sight, sound, voice, movement, breath, gestures, dialogue and writing. All these different forms came into the process and that’s when they realised that it’s hard to separate them and that there’s a lot of value in bringing in these different forms together and tapping into all these different sensory mediums in order to facilitate individuals to release, express, share, have insights, and all of this in the context of growth, transformation, healing and even social change. 

Valerie-  Right. You told us that it’s a way of bringing different art forms together for purposes like healing, sharing, expressing and releasing our emotions, in a way. What kind of mental distress has Expressive Arts Therapy been able to help with?

Avantika- It’s all kinds of mental health issues that one can explore through Expressive Arts Therapy. The basis is really creating a safe therapeutic facilitated environment with a trained Expressive Arts Therapist and if we look at the kind of reasons that people might come for therapy, it’s going to range from stress to anxiety, depression, working with trauma, maybe exploring relationship dynamics, conflicts, decision making. 

So it’s really the whole range all the way to exploring grief or eating disorders or body image, gender and sexuality because if you look at all of these mental health issues, they live in our bodies and we experience the world through our bodies. The memories and experiences that contribute to some of these issues are related so the mind and body can’t really be separated, it’s one. That integrated approach can really help you look at all of these mental health issues. It’s really not different from Talk Therapy in the sense of the benefits that one can have and the reasons why you might go for Expressive Arts Therapy. 

Valerie-  Avantika, what got you interested in Expressive Arts Therapy as opposed to Talk Therapy? What’s a form that you resonate with the most?

Avantika-  Personally for me, it’s really my love for the arts. Right from my schooling years as long as I can remember, I’ve seen singing and speaking in public, creating art as a child and moving onto college, I was engaged with dramatics and in my teenage years, I used to really dabble with oil pastels and poetry and those were really the spaces where I came alive.

Valerie- So you’ve really done a little bit of everything then!

Avantika- Yeah, pretty much! I’m definitely one of those and I can’t say that I’ve specialized in any one but of course, I have my preferences. What I can remember is that I was a shy, nerdy but also a very social child growing up and the school I went to really put a lot of emphasis on extracurriculars and the arts, and that was just amazing for my own personal growth and development and it brought a certain aliveness and confidence in me. So of course, it was the love with the arts and engaging with the arts throughout my life, along with having studied psychology and falling in love with the subject. 

Being someone who wanted to help and support others, it led me to taking this path and quit a more conventional safe corporate life. That’s what really brought me here and I’ve never looked back. I think it’s been one of the best decisions, to do something you love for work. In my work personally, I use visual art and writing and poetry. I’m most comfortable working with these languages of the arts and writing. When it comes to choosing to attend workshops for myself, I think movement and drama seem to really bring out different sides of me that are very revealing and it helps me explore my edge in those spaces. 

Valerie-  That’s nice! You said that Expressive Arts Therapy is an intermodal form of therapy. You have a little bit of all of the alternative forms working together, right?

Avantika- Yes, you may have two or more in a given session. 

Valerie-  Is it easier for someone who doesn’t have a preference for one specific form to do Expressive Arts Therapy where they can maybe understand what they’re more inclined to, as opposed to starting with one specific form?

Avantika- I think the way we approach it in therapy is firstly to help the individuals feel at ease with the materials and with the modalities. It’s a very gentle bringing in and helping them express through just basic sound or gesture, it could be really small movements, it could be painting to music for instance, or just getting comfortable with the different modalities. For that, it doesn’t really require you to have any kind of skill in it. The only thing that’s really needed is a level of interest and curiosity to want to explore through the arts. 

You might ask the individual if they’ve had any previous experience with the arts and if they have a particular preference when it comes to a certain modality. If you look at it at a really basic level, it’s about playing, it’s about shaping, it’s about creating and experimenting in the realm of a particular theme that’s being explored in therapy, which is linked to what the person came in for and the issue they might be bringing in. 

In that play, it’s not about skills or about how beautiful the art is or how well you’re moving your body, it’s more about connecting with yourself through this language and through this being the medium, and that is possible when there is a non-judgemental space, when there’s no sense of right and wrong, and it’s really the job of the therapist to bring the person into it very gradually and smoothly. There’s a whole system and method to it in order to ease the client into the process. So at that point, it really doesn’t matter whether they’ve had experience or not with a particular art form.

Valerie-  Following up on that, when you talk about the job of the therapist, how do you, as an Expressive Arts Therapist, group together various forms of these creative therapies for each client to know what they’ll resonate with best and help people understand what they’re feeling through the process?

Avantika- It’s a good question! If I were to take you through a session for instance, every session has a particular flow. The client might come in and in the beginning, you would engage in some amount of talk to understand what brings them here, what it is that they’re looking to work with or explore, and then the session moves into a warm-up. This warm-up could be to ground and sense into the current moment, it might be to move into music and really coming into your body, it may be painting to music. These are all different ideas as to how one might warm-up to the space, the materials and coming into the present. 

From that warm-up, you lead them to an immersive experience with the arts. This could be a movement exercise or a visual arts experience and really staying with the art itself, staying at the surface of the work, looking at the quality, textures, colours, and what feelings are emerging from that, what sensations it’s bringing up. It’s woven around a theme which is explored in depth. We may move from visualizing to painting to writing, within this process.

Valerie- So when you say “theme”, what exactly do you mean?

Avantika- By theme, I mean that we might be exploring say boundaries for instance, and the theme could be that or the theme could be experiencing grief and expressing what that feels like through paper or clay or collage. The theme would be the topic of exploration, it could be exploring different paths and having to decide which one to take. It could be about staying in a relationship or leaving it, it could be about a career. It’s any question or intention that’s being held or a particular issue that the person is dealing with that could be more long term or long standing. 

You might explore a particular theme over many sessions and as the theme develops, you’re exploring the art and the art is what you’re shaping and creating, and you’re staying with it at the surface level. At this point, you’re really engaging the left brain, which is the creative, emotional side of you and not bringing any rational mind thinking into it. The arts really take you into a different world, an imaginary play space where you are constructing and deconstructing and transforming things through the medium of the arts, through the props and through working with the body. 

After this, you step back and observe the process. Everything that just happened, looking at it and saying what was that like? Was there something that stood out? Was there a particular moment in that movement or a part of a picture that really seems to attract you or surprise you, and what is this opening up to? It’s more of this reflective space, from where you transition into bridging that into asking how this now has meaning for you in your life? 

We circle back to the original conflict or distress that the person came in with, and then we look at what insight is emerging from this process. Then typically, the session ends with that sharing and debrief so talk therapy is also a big part of Expressive Arts Therapy. Then we might end with a closing ritual at the end of the session. 

Valerie-  Right. It sounds like a very comprehensive process where you talk about what you want to explore and then through art, you express yourself and then at the end of it, you have something to take away and learn from, so that you can help transform your life.

Avantika-  Absolutely. The beauty is that when you’re working with the arts, it gives you an opportunity to move away from that rational thinking mind and really tune into your body, where you’re tuning into the more subconscious layers and tapping into a wisdom or a truth that is inherent within you.

Valerie-  Looking back at all the episodes we’ve had so far, we’ve understood that therapy for mental health goes far beyond conventional talk therapy, and that people can express themselves and their emotions through various modalities. Keeping this in mind, where could people go from here? How do you envision the future of alternative therapy?

Avantika- I think that alternative therapies are becoming extremely relevant and very very valuable in our present time, especially when we’re moving so fast in our minds, sometimes our body is not at the same pace and it’s so important to pause and step back and actually bring those two together in alignment. I think there’s an openness now more than ever before, to even higher creative or expressive arts therapists as part of teams of counsellors in schools and NGOs and even in hospitals as a part of mental health departments.

It’s really exciting to see that slowly and steadily there are job opportunities that are opening up, there are many more training programs in India itself, and this physical-emotional health connection is becoming undeniably important. If someone is experiencing persistent headaches, body pain or indigestion, it certainly has some roots that are connected to their emotions, beliefs and ways of thinking, and we can’t run away from that. 

With all the awareness that’s there and thanks to podcasts like yours, there’s now a possibility of seeking therapy and seeking it through different creative and alternative ways and very slowing, the stigma around seeking help in a country like India is starting to dissolve or at least there are healthier narratives that are coming to the surface. Being part of the community of therapists working in this field, all of us dream for it to become mainstream and also to have an equal respect and value for the arts and the science, which comes together in this whole umbrella of Creative Arts Therapy. I’m really hopeful!

Valerie- I think you summed it up really beautifully when you said that it’s so important to keep your mind and your body in sync because they may move at a different pace and when you take about alternative therapy, you talk about how you can use your body more and actually just take a step back and understand yourself better. You explained to us the motive of alternative therapy and you take these little steps towards trying to shatter that stigma around seeking help and seeking alternative therapy as a means of therapy.

Avantika- Absolutely.

Valerie- Avantika, thank you so much for talking to us today and spreading light on what Expressive Arts Therapy is. When we spoke about different alternative means of therapy, it’s only fitting to end our series on Expressive Arts Therapy which basically brings all of these forms together in different ways. You spoke to us about the importance of alternative therapy, knowing that we can understand our bodies so much better. Hopefully it’ll help bring awareness to people about what alternative therapy is and help bring it into something that’s more mainstream and sought by people without that stigma of what it is or what it’s like.

Avantika- Absolutely, You summed it up beautifully and I think it’s just important for people to know that no problem is big or small and that there’s absolutely no shame in seeking support and there are so many ways in which you could seek it. Thank you so much for these really insightful questions. It really got me thinking and reconnecting with my own journey in this field. 

Valerie-  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much, Avantika

The Invisible Spectrums – Asexuality & Aromanticism

A look into their struggles to be seen, heard and accepted

This June, as we navigate through talking about issues and how far we have come as a part of and as allies to the LGBTQ+ community, it is also important to talk about the groups within the community that still struggle to be seen and validated for who they are. In particular, Asexuality and Aromanticism are very underrepresented in mainstream media and are only now slowly gaining attention and visibility.

Understanding Asexuality & Aromanticism

Asexuality is the term used to refer to experiencing very little to no sexual attraction. Asexuals do not have any desire for a sexual partnership. Asexuality is different from celibacy (where a person deliberately abstains from sexual activity) and it is not the same as being aromantic.  

Aromanticism refers to experiencing little to no romantic attraction towards anyone. People who are aromantic are not always asexual and vice versa.

And the most important thing to remember here is that asexuality and aromanticism exist on a spectrum and that there are a lot of different identities within that spectrum. For instance, Demisexuality falls under the asexuality spectrum and refers to experiencing sexual attraction only after forming an emotional bond with someone (which need not be romantic either). 

To learn more about the many different identities within the spectrum, start here.

The Struggle with Visibility

Here lies the biggest obstacle that the people in these communities have to overcome – visibility. A lot of asexuals and aromantics struggle with their own feelings and rather than allowing for space to come to terms with their questioning, they suppress their true identities because let’s face it – we live in a very heteronormative society. And even within the LGBTQIA+ community, most of the narratives and stories talk about acceptance and finding happiness through love and sexual exploration. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with those narratives, it is a fact that there is a definite lack of space to narrate the stories and experiences of those exploring identities that have no desire for either. 

We have come to constantly associate happiness with love and finding romantic partners through all the movies that we see growing up that it becomes difficult to even think about the existence of people who have no desire to find romantic love or to explore it through sexual intimacy. In mainstream media, asexuality and aromanticism are almost never talked about and even in the sliver of instances that they are, it is a subtle implication rather than an explicit statement. 

The most popular character in media that had openly identified as asexual was Todd Chavez from BoJack Horsemen in 2014. Till 2018, GLADD (which is an NGO that was founded as a protest to the defamatory coverage of LGBT people in media)  had found that he was the only character in any streaming platform that identified as asexual. But perhaps the most revolutionary piece of literature that goes under the radar is The Deed of Paksenarrion (1992) written by Elizabeth Moon. The titular character,Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter, openly rejects the idea of marriage and expresses no desires for love or sexual intimacy. 

For aromantics, the list dwindles down even further, with the first ever representation coming in the form of the book Parahumans by John C. “Wildbow” McCrae where the character Wilbourn Lisa identifies as aromantic and asexual published in 2011. 

The most interesting thing to note here is how most if not all aromantic representations are tied to also being asexuals when they are not always intersecting in real life.  And even more interesting is how there is almost no representation for ace/aro people in India.  It is 2021, there are only a handful of asexual and aromantic characters globally and the ones being represented come with a slew of problems and misrepresentations. With the last article mentioning how important it is to diversify representations in media and culture, asexuals and aromantics get the shortest end of the stick even within the LGBTQ+ community.

What does the struggle for visibility mean for mental health?

At this point, it shouldn’t be surprising that the lack of visibility also translates to mental health. There is very little data available about the mental health status of ace and aro people and the very little data that is available, does not show many positives. 

A new poll by Sky Data asked UK adults how confident, if it all, they would be in defining asexuality. Of the 1,119 people questioned, 53 per cent said they were confident in explaining the term. However, when they were put to the test 75 per cent were either wrong or did not know that some asexual people do experience a sex drive.

A study done in 2011 also suggested that the prevalence of anxiety, depression, interpersonal problems and suicidal tendencies do seem higher in the asexual individuals when compared to people from other identities. 

This can also be understood as a problem arising due to lack of understanding and empathy and validation of the identities of the people in the ace and aro communities and could severely affect their mental health. 

Conflicts within the LGBTQ+ Community

There are a lot of other struggles that the asexual and aromantic communities face and surprisingly it comes from within the LGBTQ+ community. The early 2010s saw a lot of discussion about how asexuals and aromantics are not a part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella terms since they do not experience as much hatred and pushback as homosexuals do. While this sentiment is absolutely misinformed, it did gain traction. A lot has changed since then but the belief that asexuality is just celibacy or abstinence still exists. And the notion that aromantics are soulless, cold robots with no emotions is also still prevalent. The LGBTQIA+ communities are safe spaces that welcome anybody and everybody; from those sure in their identities to those questioning and should never become places of exclusion of any kind for it would defeat the purpose it set out to serve.

Self-acceptance & Internalized Ace-/Aro-phobia

However, the biggest struggles often come from within and it is often true when talking about questioning identities as well. The lack of representation, awareness about LGBTQ+ spectrums and barriers from all sides often leave the asexuals and aromantics feeling invisible and pushes them to question their newfound identities and develop an uncomfortable distaste for it. For what good is a person if they cannot love someone in the way “they are supposed to be loved” right? At least that is the narrative that society pushes on them. The Indian cultural influence and pressure to have kids but to stay celibate until marriage leads a lot of people to misidentify themselves or forces them to become someone they are not, to satisfy society’s expectations of them. Hence, a lot of aces and aros stay closeted or do not feel comfortable to openly state their identities and end up believing that there is truly something wrong with them. 

Below is a wonderful and poignant comic on a person’s struggle with accepting their asexuality and aromanticism and serves as a glimpse into how those belonging to either or both to these spectrums feel alienated and unheard. 

Here is the full comic: Aromanticism comic by Kotaline Jones

Here are a few other voices from aces and aros on the struggles they face and what it feels like to be themselves.

With asexuality and aromanticism being very fluid, it is often such that the identities keep changing with the passage of time. But that does not mean that any of them are invalid. You and your identities are valid no matter what and your worth does not lie in your ability to love someone romantically or in revelling in sexual intimacy with them. The world is too big to be put into boxes and labelled and the same goes with people. You are wonderful and deserving of all good things just the way you are, and fear not for we have Spongebob Squarepants on our side! (Spongebob is identified to be asexual)

Here is an article on how to be a good ally to the LGBTQ+ community which unequivocally also includes those in the asexual and aromantic spectrum.

Resources to learn more about asexuality & aromanticism

  1. To learn more about the asexuality and aromanticism spectrum
  2. How to be an ally to asexuals and those in the spectrum
  3. How to be a good ally to aromantics and those in the spectrum

Navigating token representation and diversity

Come June, we have Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, to celebrate non-binary sexuality, and to demand systemic change for the LGBTQ+ community in society. It is also the time when several companies come up with a range of Pride-themed products and marketing campaigns aiming to display inclusion and cater to the LGBTQ+ community. The community is a “growing market” with increasing spending power ( estimated to be 3.7 trillion dollars worldwide) and firms have taken note. Social media sites provide options for rainbow emojis and backgrounds.Companies like Fastrack, Adidas, Reebok, IBM, Anouk, Godrej, Times of India, Brookebond etc. are letting their rainbow flags fly and churning out rainbow-themed products.

Are rainbow stickers and colourful packaging enough though?

This kind of marketing, also known as rainbow washing or rainbow marketing, is sheerly opportunistic and draws attention away from the core message while promoting no real change. With the entry of corporate brands in the Pride march, tickets have become expensive (with free tickets being cancelled altogether), further alienating those with lesser incomes.

Several retails brands like H&M and Adidas manufacture products from countries where homosexuality is banned and have not made any efforts to improve conditions there. Fashion labels that are said to support the cause refuse to recruit LGBTQ+ models. YouTube has mostly ignored hateful homophobic content to remain uncensored, despite claiming to value diversity. Goldman Sachs has recently come under criticism for discrimination in hiring and treatment of employees, going so far as to exclude an employee from an important conference call, because he sounded, “too gay”.

However, there are other organizations that have gone beyond cheery slogans and walked the talk for inclusivity that everyone can take note from. Absolut, Smirnoff and Wells Fargo have been closely associated with the cause for 30 years despite the initial backlash and have donated more than 400 million dollars for the cause. Apple’s Tim Cook openly called out the government for its anti-homosexuality laws and Disney threatened to move to a different place over Georgia’s similar laws. P&G has partnered a million-dollar deal with GLAAD to increase visibility for people from the LGBTQ+ community. Swedish furniture giant IKEA led the way in 1994 with a dining table ad featuring a gay couple. They were portrayed like any other couple and the company didn’t gloat or pat itself on the back. It went about integrating the ad into a larger campaign of inclusivity for all kinds of families.

Older members of the community agree that it is progress to see brands openly allying with LGBTQ+ community, but the Pride march is not just about celebration and tribute. It is about demanding change for those still suffering. In various countries, same-sex relationships and marriages are still banned, conversion therapy is legal and discrimination and harassment are a fact of everyday life. As Ahalya Srikant, Research Fellow points out “Living in a big city can make life easier to be out and proud of who you are. But for a lot of the LGBTQ+ community, pride is still a protest.”
While corporations employ rainbow marketing strategies, movies and tv shows have taken the opposite route. Ever watched a character and felt a stunning moment of connection? When it was like seeing yourself and your own unique experiences mirrored? Well, for a vast majority of LGBTQ+ people, these moments come rarely, if at all.

Remember the last LGBTQ+ character in a movie or tv series? The character was either a flamboyant, effeminate fashionista, as tough as nails, “manly” short-haired fighter, the psychopathic villain or the adorable side character killed off to motivate the hero ( a. k. a. Bury your gays trope). They either appear fitting into these boxes, while also appearing attractive enough to the heteronormative viewer, or not ar all. That’s all the options available for the most part.

Earlier content wasn’t even ready to identify the characters as being LGBTQ+ lest they lose viewership or violate the Motion Picture Production Code. Predominantly LGBTQ+ characters have been relegated to the role of villains like in Silence of the Lambs. Due to the belief that non-binary identity itself was a deviation or perversion, those characters were often linked with psychopathy and violence.

China still bans the depiction of homosexual characters and major big-budget movies choose to feature minor queer characters that can be easily edited out. Another method used is queer baiting (or queer coding) where a person’s sexuality and relationships are implied in sub-text, rather than shown, an often-quoted example being Dean Winchester in the show, ‘Supernatural’. This method draws in queer viewers while also avoiding offending more conservative viewers. Both methods of course tell us that the homophobic view takes precedence.

Casting Straight cis-gendered people for LGBTQ characters hasn’t helped either. Many recent portrayals too have dropped the ball on LGBTQ+ representation. Akshay Kumar in Laxmii steadily belts out sexist dialogues and mannerisms in an effort to play a transgender character. Vignesh Shivan’s portion in Netflix’s “Paava Kadhaigal” is a mess of stereotypes- the foreigner lesbian, the ignorant villagers, short hair and jacket, attempts to demonstrate what a lesbian relationship means and the big reveal. It doesn’t help that these characters are often played by hetero cis-men such as Eddie Redmayne, Timothee Chamalet etc., furthering the myth that queer people are basically hetero people who are confused or putting on an act.

It isn’t all bad, though. With a change in audience perception, thanks to the collective efforts of shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Queer as Folk, and Will and Grace, nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters have been emerging and winning viewer’s hearts. Show writers and actors no longer shy away from acknowledging the sexuality of their characters. In fact, several of these out and proud LGBTQ+ characters like Raymond Holt, Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn 99), Nia (Supergirl), Sophia Burset and Nicky Nichols (Orange Is the New Black), Eric Effiong (Sex Education), Robin Buckley (Stranger things) and Callie Torres (Grey’s anatomy) have quickly become fan favorites. Callie became the longest-running queer series regular. Brooklyn 99 even won the GLAAD’s award for Outstanding Comedy series. What’s more, many of these characters are played by members of the LGBTQ+ community. These much-beloved characters have beautifully balanced talking about their sexuality and yet developing the character beyond this facet of their identity.
From including gay characters only for shock value and easy jokes, Indian cinema has made significant progress. Movies like Fire and Memories in March that spoke about same-sex relationships, and Margarita with a Straw, that talks about the intersection of gender disability and sexuality, did start the conversation in the industry. Yet it took Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan, Kapoor and Sons, Super Deluxe, Bombay Talkies and Njan Marykutty in the last few years to really bring these stories to the mainstream audience.

In March 2021, we will even have the country’s first exclusive LGBTQ streaming service, PlanetOut with plans to venture towards including local stories and talent.

Regional queer literature is harder to come by, not just due to the taboo surrounding the topic, but also because many writers face, “…an increasing demand to fit into the ‘urban, upper class gay’ stereotype from publishing houses and editors…”, mentions Moulee, curator of the Queer LitFest Chennai. However with the rise of smaller publishing houses, self-publishing and the internet, it is becoming significantly easier to publish and access queer content and connect with each other.

But why does seeing LGBTQ+ characters in the media matter so much?
– For starters, it provides comfort and connection to people who are already struggling with so much uncertainty and isolation.
– Watching most characters similar to you portrayed as villains or conveniently killed off can lead to internalized hate and feeling misunderstood.
– Trying hard to fit into narrow stereotypes shown on TV and feel lacking when we don’t is not healthy to anyone’s self-esteem or confidence.
– It is not an easy topic to talk about and the presence of such characters even in fiction is a crucial starting point in normalization in society.
– It is also inspiring to see similar role models thrive and succeed
– Acceptance and popularity of these shows help queer people understand that they can be accepted and loved, too
– It helps everyone gain perspective on the unique experiences of the LGBTQ+ individual
Besides, don’t all stories, all voices deserve to be heard?

As Wired’s Editorial Fellow, Josie Colt frankly sums it up,”…Do corporations ever fly flags out of sincere support? Unless they’ve shown other actions of allyship, rainbow-washing seems like an attempt to appear hip, hop on the current bandwagon and make a few bucks while they’re at it. Should the same question be applied to people who tag along to parades? If that’s your one action of solidarity for the whole year, should you be wearing a rainbow at all? Then again, sincere or not, showing the world that much rainbow doesn’t seem so bad either.”

Let’s take this opportunity to ponder on our actions year-round. Do we happily cheer on regressive portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters? Do we continue to shop, and therefore support brands that utilize the queer identity for their own profits? Do we continue to ridicule and further these stereotypes? It’s time to start thinking because rainbow DPs aren’t gonna cut it anymore.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Animal-Assisted Therapy ft. Dr. Taylor Griffin

Someone once said that “The best therapist has fur and four legs”. Let’s find out how true that is as we explore Animal-Assisted Therapy in this episode.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Taylor Chastain Griffin, the National Director of Animal-Assisted Interventions Advancement at Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to improving people’s health through positive interactions with therapy animals. She has a background as a dog trainer, therapy dog handler, and in mental health.

Welcome, Taylor!

Taylor- Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie-  It’s great to have you talk to us. In the introduction, I mentioned that you have a background as a therapy dog handler and also in mental health. How have you found animals positively impact human lives?

Taylor- Yes, that is a great question. I have found endless ways that animals can positively impact our lives. It’s not just in my experiences but also in research. There are so many different findings that support this claim- Animals can help us model relationships. We can learn how to trust and take care of one another interpersonally. They also help us with our physical health. There are studies that talk about us being more active when we have animals. We have more sense of motivation, a reason to get up in the morning when we have animals in our lives

There’s something intangible and indescribable about the way we tend to react when we have animals around us. When I was a counselor and I had animals in my practice with me, I found that people trusted me a lot more quickly. They would just come into the office and smile and feel comfortable because of that animal’s presence.

Valerie-  Right. Taylor, what is your relationship with animals like? As far as I know, you have a lot of dogs at home!

Taylor- Yes, my love for animals really brought me into this field. I would say that over the years, the more I’ve learnt about animals, the more I can on the perspective that they’re my teachers,- that they have something to teach me and I would just like to do all I can to be a messenger for what they bring into our lives. I see everyday when I come home that my animals greet me with love and with happiness no matter what mood that I’m in. It motivates me to try and do the same in my relationships. I have animals at home now who were rescued. They’ve had really hard starts to life and now they’re therapy animals who share love with people all over the world. I really respect animals and think they’re really complex, feeling beings that we’re only just starting to understand. It’s my goal to understand that and be a microphone for that all over the world!

Valerie-  It’s so correct that you said it’s an incomparable feeling when you go home to an animal and you get all of that love! No matter what mood you’re in, you’re always uplifted after that.

Taylor- I heard a saying once that we “should be the person our dog thinks we are” and I think that’s definitely a goal.

Valerie-  I have a T-shirt that says that!

Taylor- Great! I love it.

Valerie- Could you tell us what Animal-Assisted Therapy is? 

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy is a term that falls within the umbrella term Animal-Assisted Interventions. It’s when a professional is bringing a therapy animal into practice with them to help meet treatment goals. This could be a mental health professional, a physical therapist. There are a lot of different ways that the animal can come in and help achieve those goals but it becomes Animal-Assisted Therapy when there’s measurable outcomes that relate to the interaction that we have with the animal. 

Valerie- What’s the training process like for animals to get registered as therapy animals?

Taylor- It’s an intensive process. For us at Pet Partners, we do not just register a therapy animal, we register a therapy animal team. We believe that the competency of the person is just as important as the competency of the animal because the person is going to be the one who is protecting that animal throughout the process. So if you have an animal that’s going to be a good fit, the first thing we look at is whether it’s a type of animal that’s going to actually enjoy and not just tolerate this interaction. Do they really like to be around new people? 

If that’s the case, the first step is that the human is going to take a course, we have an online course that’s available. Then once they pass that course, they can take an in-person evaluation with their animal. At that point, we’re testing fort basic obedience queues, how they’re going to respond to medical equipment, loud noises. They’re allowed to have responses, of course. We’re not looking for robots but we’re looking for whether they can recover and are still competent and happy. Therapy animals in our organization re-evaluate every two years. We know animals age much more quickly than we do so we like to make sure we’re checking in and ensuring that it’s a good fit for an animal throughout the lifetime.

Valerie- When we talk about therapy animals, what kind of animals are we talking about? How do we know what animal will have the best interaction with which person?

Taylor- We have nine different species of therapy animals at Pet Partners – dogs, cats, horses, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, eats, pigs but by and large, our most common therapy animal is a dog. I always fall back on the competencies of the handler. For me, I have so much background in working with dogs that I’m definitely most comfortable interacting with therapy dogs because I can read their body language the best. 

There are different clients that have preferences. We find that older adults sometimes seem to have a preference for cats. We see that sometimes our young boys get very excited when we come in with a therapy rat. You can ask for the preferences of the people you’re visiting but really, it comes down to the animal that you’d be most comfortable working with and that’s an animal who’s going to be confident, affiliative – meaning they seek out interactions with humans, and they’re ready to listen to you so you have a safe interaction when you’re in the public. 

Valerie- What interactions do the animals have with people during Therapy? 

Taylor- That can vary depending on the treatment goals. When I was in a session with my client, they would sometimes help model healthy relationships. We would talk about how you can build trust with my therapy animals by giving them training cues or getting to know their preferences, and the same thing goes with interactions with people. You can even do physical activities- I had one activity that I did with young people. They had a ball that they could throw to play fetch with my animal and on the ball, there were maybe ten different feeling words- sad, happy, excited, and as the animal would bring the ball back to the child, they would read the word that was facing them and have to tell me about a time in their life when they were feeling those emotions. So they’re accessing these memories and emotions but in a really safe, playful way. So it really depends on the animal and on the goals of the professional but it can fit into any intervention that the professional has, as long as you’re creative and you’re committed to honoring the welfare of the animal all throughout. 

Valerie- That’s interesting! What does a typical session look like? More importantly, how comfortable does one have to be with the animal?

Taylor- The session will be different each time. When I was doing a fifty minute session, I tend to find that a client would come in, greet my animal, and sometimes we would spend time with the animal just sitting on their lap, as we talk. Sometimes, they would do about ten or fifteen minutes of training activities with them. It depends on the energy level and the preferences of the client. In order to work with a therapy animal though, you should be highly familiar with that animal. At Pet Partners, we have a rule that an animal cannot become a therapy animal until they’re a year old and the handler has had to know that animal for at least six months. We think you should have a well developed relationship with these animals so that you can read their body language, advocate for them and they’re really a partner with you in what you do, not just an accessory. 

Valerie- Supposing someone’s going to psychotherapy, when do they try something like Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Taylor- They can try it at any point in their treatment if it’s something they’re interested in and if they can find a practitioner who has a therapy animal. We consider a person to be a good candidate for this if they don’t have any fears or phobias or allergies of animals. We also like to encourage professionals to set their clients up for success by having the initial session to be one in which you just talk about how you’re going to interact with the animal instead of expectations, before having that hands-on experiences when it can become really exciting and a hard time to learn about how to interact with the animals when the animal is there. It can really fit into any time and treatment. We have animals who are with clients all throughout their process of healing, sometimes they come in every now and then as just a special treat. It’s a really flexible intervention, which is one of my favorite things about it.

Valerie- When you were talking to us earlier, you told us about how having an animal can uplift your mood and just help through the healing process. How is Animal-Assisted Therapy different from psychotherapy when it comes to sessions, in terms of the mental health impact that it has? Can you talk us through the process of healing that you were telling us about, with animals?

Taylor- Any time a therapist is going to work with an animal, there needs to be this core set of competencies. The animal is not a magic solution that brings about healing. They’re joining sides with a very skilled professional, who can meet their treatment outcomes with or without the animal. With that being said though, the animal can be a really meaningful aid. One of the things that people talk about is the idea of relationship-building, that animals assist in that and building trust between the client and the therapist. 

There are also just creative ways that you can access new things when you have an animal in the session. I’m thinking two times when we have topics that are really hard to teach young people. We would talk about consent and appropriate touch, which are hard things to communicate to a child, sometimes but when you’re modelling it on an animal like for example, I have a therapy animal named Lucy. I would tell clients that Lucy likes to be pet behind her ear and she doesn’t like to be pet so much on her stomach and so because that’s her preference, that’s something we should follow. Do you have preferences? What’s appropriate for you? So they can really model ways to set boundaries in a non-threatening way while working with the therapy animal.

Valerie- It’s so interesting that you said you can use these animals to explain things to people in a way that’s not threatening and not something that would be a confrontational conversation that would be difficult to talk about if you were doing it directly.

Taylor- Yes, exactly. You can really do a lot of perspective taking activities with animals. I would often work with children who had a hard time taking the perspective of other people but they could learn to do that with my animals. I would say that when you come into the room, it’s important not to get in Lucy’s face and be too excited because that can be overwhelming for her even though she loves you, so think about how you’re being received. Then we can put that into human context – when you walk into your classroom and behave a certain way, how might it be received by the other people in your class?

Valerie- Right. Taylor, what age groups have you found Animal-Assisted Therapy to work best with?

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy can be successful across all areas of the lifespan. There’s research and anecdotal evidence to back that up. Very young children can benefit from therapy animals, and even all the way up to people with severe dementia. We even have therapy animals who assist in cases of hospice, when it’s an end of life situation. You will want to think about the size of the animal and if there are any mobility issues that will impact a person’s ability to safely interact with different sized animals but really, it’s an intervention that can be safely implemented across the lifespan.

Valerie- Okay. We’ve heard that Pet Partners is soon launching an association for professionals who aim to bring therapy animals into their work. What are your views on this? What has your experience with Animal Assisted Intervention in a professional space been like? 

Taylor- I’m very very excited about this development. For a long time, Pet Partners has focused on serving volunteers who bring therapy animals into places like hospitals, schools and nursing homes, at least in the United States. We get calls from more and more professionals across many different fields who have heard about this intervention and would like to bring a therapy animal into their practice but they don’t know how to get started. That’s what our professional association is going to help with. 

We’re going to provide that roadmap, we’re going to provide education, opportunities to connect with other professionals through an online community, we are also going to have a certification evaluation so that a professional can show that they have competencies in this area. We see this as the next step that the field really needs. At the end of almost every research paper on Animal-Assisted Therapy, you see that there’s a call for more standardization and more professionalization within the field, and that’s what we’re going to be doing through the launch of this professional association.

Valerie- That’s really interesting, Taylor!

Taylor- Yes, we’re excited. We hope to have many of the listeners today join us. It should be launching in January of 2022 and you can visit petpartners.org to sign up for a newsletter that will keep you up to date on all of our advancements in this phase. 

Valerie- Sure, thank you for giving us that information. Thank you for talking to us today about Animal-Assisted Therapy because there is so much we got to learn from you. I have a dog at home and I know just how good you can feel when you have an animal waiting for you every single time you come back regardless of how you’re feeling. You’ve also talked to us about how you can use animals to model relationships, you can mirror the feeling of trust and having a safe space in your relationships with people as well, and it gives you a sense of motivation and upliftment. Thank you for talking to us and sharing all of this information with us. It’s definitely been a very very interesting conversation.

Taylor- Absolutely. It’s my pleasure and I hope that everyone who’s listening is motivated to think about the lessons that we learn from animals, whether it be pets or therapy animals, and how we can use those lessons to make the world a better place. 
Valerie- Thank you.

Does a Rainbow Flag equal Inclusivity?

In my first year of college, we had a counsellor come to us and claim to cure bisexuality. A few events I attended after that had a rather homophobic note. To the credit of the institution, they got a new therapist and we were asked not to make “political comments during events”(at what point sexual identity became political is beyond me). In the spirit of people attaching rainbows to company logos let us see how far we have come and what we seem to have left out. 

At the risk of sounding repetitive, is the world accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community? Companies and organisations during pride month will have you think all of them are allies or actively working towards diversity and inclusion. From Google dedicating their logo to honour Frank Kameny and Linkedin adding a rainbow. But do companies want to be inclusive? Twitter has a marketing page dedicated to how the LGBTQIA+ community is a ‘market to tap into’. Is our identity just a trope and a marketing strategy? 

As disturbing as that is, we should ask ourselves what real inclusivity is.  There are multiple sources to tell you how the cause has been tainted by corporate marketing and token representation. The real struggles of inclusivity are often foreshadowed by corporates acting progressively and tricky policymakers remaining ambiguous. One such aspect not often discussed and almost never regarded as a serious problem is the availability of mental health resources for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Studies show that despite being at a higher risk for mental health issues like anxiety and identity crises and more likely to have unmet healthcare needs, getting quality help in terms of mental health has always been a struggle for the community as a whole. 

More than half (54%) of LGBTQ youth who reported wanting mental health resources in the past year did not receive it in the United States alone. Another study in India conducted between 2009-2019 showed the prevalence of mental health concerns among LGBTQIA+ individuals in India with high concentrations reporting suicidal tendencies and severe cases of harassment. Yet another study by the Trevor Project showed that 40% of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months. More than half of transgender and non-binary youth have also seriously considered suicide.

Studies show that even if you are lucky enough to get help, there are multiple unhelpful therapeutic practices and even discrimination based on race, creed, and income brackets, and a person belonging to multiple marginalised groups is likely to receive a lower standard of care compared to their peers. Reportedly, there has been a lack of safe spaces even with mental health professionals and cases of blatant disregard for issues faced by members of the community in India. Another crisis faced by the community is a lack of understanding, even among peers and family members. 

Now that we have highlighted the very serious and relatively-disturbing problems faced by the community, it is now time to see what we can do to make the situation better. 

  1. Try and be a good ally by educating yourself on allyship. LonePack is ready to help you!
  2. Lend your voice as an ally to the community while also being respectful and understanding of the cause.
  3. Support community-building – by members themselves and in conjunction with service providers – which is an important part of improving health for people of the LGBTQ+ community.
  4. Popularise the practice of affirmative therapy. 
  5. Reach out to and/or support organisations like the Trevor Project that aim to make quality healthcare more accessible to at-risk youth.
  6. If you need to speak with a professional, LonePack has a ‘Resources’ page with details of vetted mental health professionals who provide inclusive therapy, often at subsidised rates. 

-Neha Ramesh 

Burnout on the Frontlines

The world has been flipped upside down ever since the COVID-19 pandemic bared its fangs last year. It has swept through the world and has kept everyone gripped in its clutches to this day. Even as vaccinations are very slowly being ramped up, it does not take away from the immediate state of disarray the country is in. Mental health has taken a very big hit and it is extremely important that we address how bad things are openly and start having conversations about it. Talking about health anxieties, survivor’s guilt, and the complicated and conflicting feelings that we have to deal with in addition to trying to shield ourselves from the pandemic might pave us ways to bond over and help us support each other. 

In this article, we’re focusing on one rampantly growing phenomenon that is affecting everyone – burnout. And in particular, burnout experienced by healthcare workers and caregivers. 

Before we get to that, a quick introduction to what burnout is – burnout is not a classified medical disorder or condition but more so a phenomenon characterized by extreme mental and physical exhaustion. WHO defines it as, “…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  3. reduced professional efficacy” [1].

Though it is said to be most prevalent in healthcare workers, first responders and professions involved with high emotional stress, it can also affect any person in any profession. 

Here is another comprehensive guide to burnout that could also be useful. 

Now, let’s address how burnout in particular has affected our healthcare workers and caregivers. 

Burnout with healthcare workers

No amount of words can come close to the gratitude and respect we feel towards our frontline healthcare workers. This pandemic has tested them to their absolute limits and beyond, and it is no surprise at all that they are the ones taking the most of the mental brunt as well. 

In a study conducted with 2,026 healthcare workers in India, a staggering increase in burnout due to the pandemic was observed. In the 21-30 age group of respondents, the prevalence of personal, work-related, and pandemic-related burnout was around 54%, 33%, and 50%, respectively [2]. It was also observed that women had higher levels of anxiety and incidences of burnout than men. Healthcare workers also showed higher distress levels that could be attributed to the high-risk environment they work in. Nearly 55% of them were worried of contracting COVID-19, themselves and 67% were worried of carrying the infection over to their family and loved ones. 

It is of utmost importance that everyone in the healthcare field do their best to take care of themselves during these very difficult times as well. While the profession they have chosen is oftentimes a satisfying one, they also bear the most emotional and mental brunt when things, though far beyond their control, go wrong. 

Burnout amongst mental health professionals

There has been a continuous increase in the number of calls that national helplines and resource providers are receiving for mental health assistance. From domestic violence to anxiety and depression, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues amongst people. As most forms of counselling and therapy have moved into telehealth mode, mental health professionals are also facing great emotional turmoil as they try to help those who reach out to them. 

India, with a population of 1.3 billion people, has as little as 4000 people in the mental health space [3]. With the amount of people reaching out for help and increasing workloads,\ professionals are experiencing big stress factors to their own mental health in forms of emotional contagion and perceived stress where negative emotions can trigger the same feelings in the professionals helping them. They also are affected by compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic fatigue and the longer durations of therapy required to help people effectively [3]. 

Home caregivers

Nothing will strike fear in people as when something goes wrong with a loved one. We are all struggling with extreme loss, unimaginable amounts of pain that come with loss and the anxieties and fear that accompany seeing loved ones suffer. 

This is a wonderful and poignant article that talks about how being the primary caregiver at home takes a toll on a person’s own mental health. With most people working from home, having to shield their families and loved ones from the virus while also trying to do their best to provide for them takes an immense toll on one’s mental health. Though most workplaces do recognize the distress that their employees are facing, the economic challenges that they face forces them to keep pushing for productivity. Caregivers at home go through an equal amount of emotional and mental turmoil and we all must do our best to help both ourselves and others as much as we can. 

So how can we help ourselves and others?

Apart from depression and health anxieties, the pandemic has caused a lot of distress to people, that manifests as survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress. We are battling not only the pandemic but also the social, economic and cultural disparities clouded by the pandemic. Marginalized and underrepresented groups face more distress and lack policies in place to protect them as well. 

If you are experiencing burnout and are a part of any of the three groups of people discussed in this article, these can be a few practical tips that might help the most immediately that are recommended by the USA CDC

  1. Identify the symptoms of stress you might be experiencing — this can include irritation, anger, exhaustion and even insomnia among others. 
  2. Communicate with your coworkers, supervisors, and employees about job stress and talk openly about how the pandemic is affecting your work.
  3. Please do your best to reach out for mental health help when necessary and take time off if possible. 
  4. Remind yourself that everyone is in an unusual situation with limited resources.
  5. Recognize that you are performing a crucial role in fighting this pandemic and that you are doing the best you can with the resources available.

And if you, reading this article, might know someone who might be experiencing burnout, here are a few things you can do to help.

  1. Try to help them keep maintain a routine
  2. Keep talks about news, negativity and social media to a minimum and check in with them regularly. 
  3. Try to engage them in mindfulness activities that might distract them. 
  4. Make sure to remind them of their importance and appreciate all that they are doing for the world. 
  5. Try to help them get enough rest and maintain good eating habits. 

Most importantly, all of us can provide a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen. Burnout is not something to be taken lightly and the effect it has on the physical, emotional and mental well-being of healthcare workers, mental health professionals and home caregivers can be immense. Let us all try to do our best to stand in support for them. 

This is your kind reminder to make sure to wear your mask, stay 6 feet apart from other people and to get vaccinated as soon as you can!  

Here are resources that might help

  1. LP Buddy is an online peer-to-peer support system that gives you a safe and inclusive environment to talk to trained listeners about your worries. 
  2. Mental health professionals listing platform
  3. Verified helplines 
  4. Donate to India Covid Relief


[1] WHO’s definition of burnout 

[2] Burnout among Healthcare Workers during COVID-19 Pandemic in India: Results of a Questionnaire-based Survey

[3] Burnout: A risk factor amongst mental health professionals during COVID-19

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Play Therapy ft. Anya Reddy

When asked to think about the significance of playing, we probably think of it as a way to help us with creative thinking, expelling our energy and social interaction. Let’s dig a little deeper on that thought today as we talk about Play Therapy.

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Anya Reddy, a Play Therapy practitioner. She is a child and adolescent psychologist who uses play as a language to help children enhance their social, emotional and behavioral skills.

Welcome, Anya!

Anya- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. Let’s start with you telling us how playing impacts our mental health.

Anya- Wow, well we could start with children or adults but actually to be honest with you, play is something that all mammals engage in. It starts out as our way of discovering the world, of discovering ourselves, our bodies, the things around us. As children, it’s how we develop friendships, relationships, it’s how we strengthen our bond with our parents and it’s how we foster friendships, how we discover empathy, how to share, argue and make up. As adults, it transforms. Some could say that play matures a bit, it could become teasing, flirting, it could become more organized in terms of sport. When we engage in play regardless of age, it leads to a lot of happy hormones in our body – you have oxytocin that’s releasing, it helps reduce your serotonin levels, that’s your stress. Play inherently makes your body happy.

Valerie- Right. Anya, can you tell us what Play Therapy is? How is it different from playing generally?

Anya- In Play Therapy, you have a trained licensed Play therapist who’s using play as a language to help you help yourself. The difference is that in Play Therapy, play isn’t the focus. In fact, we disregard the materials that we have because we know that the therapist is the most important tool and toy in the room. We’re using play as a language but we’re focusing on the client-therapist relationship. 

When you ask how it’s different from playing generally – when we play, there’s no goal to play whereas in Play Therapy, we have our goals. We know what we want to achieve. The child is not coming in just to play with building blocks. The way that the Play therapist holds the space, is watching the child, engaging with the child, the minimal number of rules that we have and the fact that it’s only once a week for 40 minutes, it’s very structured. Going in, even the child knows because there’s an energy in the room and the therapist is picking up on body language, energy, communication, and eye-connection. So there’s a lot that’s going on.

Valerie- Right. Anya, you were telling us that playing can help with a lot of things. It helps when it comes to discovering the world and ourselves, and getting to know ourselves better. What got you interested in providing Play Therapy professionally?

Anya- I have never been a big believer in Talk Therapy, for children especially but adults as well. I wanted to use creative methods, more artistic with movement, storytelling or mindfulness, just different techniques that would access the human subconscious. I feel like we are all able to heal ourselves and that humans are capable of responsible freedom. No one knows one’s inner world better than themselves, nobody else can tell you what you need. I am a big fan of clients being able to take charge of their own healing. So I feel like using creative methods like play allows for that. I wanted to give children the chance to blossom into human beings, not just children. 

I feel like children are infantilized. They’re almost treated as though they don’t know anything, they’re not given enough information, and are dumbed down. Then all of a sudden they’re expected to be able to handle a lot of things. We need to treat children also with respect, autonomy, dignity and just recognition for the fact that they’re also human beings who are actually very aware. A child’s intuition is much sharper than most adults’ intuition. Play Therapy allowed me to integrate creative techniques and an approach where I would be able to meet a child as a human being instead of a child as a child. I was working with a client and it had nothing to do with age. That said, you can also use Play Therapy with adults. 

Valerie- Why don’t you tell us about that? When we were talking about the impact of playing on our mental health, you did mention that it works on children and adults, and right now you did say that Play Therapy is not just for children. Why don’t you tell us more about that?

Anya- When you’re working with adults, Play Therapy is great in terms of healing the inner child. With a lot of adults, you’ll see unresolved issues, maybe a certain conditioning that’s happened, certain scars they never truly had the chance or space to fully heal, and some scars can take years to heal from. 

There’s also how you carry your childhood trauma, not only to your adult relationships at home or at work, but also into your own parenting and how it affects your parenting choices, how it affects how you feel about yourself as a parent and whether you trust yourself as a parent. I’m a big fan of using not only Play Therapy with parents but different techniques of helping parents become aware of who they’re becoming as parents, with the choices they’re making and whether they’re conscious, informed choices. 

Beyond just parents, Play Therapy is a wonderful way of connecting with the inner child, holding and recognizing how it’s important. You carry the experiences, memories, the things you learnt and regretted into who you become as an adult and along the way, we seem to drop the child in us. I feel like it’s important for us to take time out to recognize the child in us, asking ourselves what this child means, how can I help this child? After a point, you can’t really go back to your parents talking about what they did and what you need from them because they may not be able to give it to you, they may not be around. Everybody has their limitations. It’s also taking charge of your own needs and discovering that you can give yourself what you felt you were denied or what you need now. Healing the inner child allows adults to return to themselves in a way that’s empowering and sort of like holding your whole self.

Valerie- Anya, it’s so beautiful that you said you believe people are capable of helping themselves and you just need to be assisted to reach there. When you talk about Play Therapy for adults, you talk about connecting with your inner child, connecting with things that you may have left unresolved or things that you are in conflict with and this just maybe takes you back to the time that things happened and try and get them resolved and make peace with things, and that is such a beautiful thing and such an important thing for people to move on in their lives.

Anya- Right.

Valerie- Can you tell us what a Play therapy session would look like?

Anya- The beautiful thing about each Play therapy session is that they’re each so different. I have this one client, Marissa, who comes in once a week, the way she engages with the toys in the room on the surface seems the same every week but it’s the little things, and a therapist would notice how her body language has changed, whether she’s sharing her artwork with me, whether her body has turned away from me or whether she’s open to sharing space with me. I could also have a client who’s engaging with me but I have also had clients who have almost refused to engage with me. I once spent 40 minutes with a client, it was his first session, and there were no words. He just engaged in movement. It was just a lot of flapping of the arms and different moving of the body. 

So how does a typical Play therapy session look like? Well, the client knows what their boundaries are – basically keeping ourselves safe, each other safe and everything  in the room safe. If they tell me that they have hurt themselves or someone wants to hurt them, then I have to end the session and tell them in advance that I’m ending the session only because I need to keep you safe and this is something that we need to prioritize right now, and I have to tell your parent or your guardian, not to punish you but just to make sure that we can keep you safe. We have to prioritize a client’s safety before we can really even delve into the subconscious and the unconscious. It’s going to be difficult to access healing if you’re physically or mentally unsafe. 

A client comes in and they have the sand tray, they have movement, they have music, art, storytelling, mindfulness. They have a bunch of different corners and materials that they can access and work with during a session. It’s completely self-directed, meaning the client chooses what they want to do. So today they might want to do art and then next week they might want to do sand and the week after that they might do a story, and three weeks later suddenly they might want to return to the story because they’ve processed it and something finally resonates so they feel like they can finally talk about it, that there’s just something that they want to return to about that story. 

So it’s totally unpredictable in a sense, but only in a tangible sense. I suppose in the more intangible sense, I know where a client is coming from and I know where we are going, and there is a growth that I can see happening but then as a therapist, I always have to be careful that I’m not coming from a space of “I know what’s best for the client”, “I know what the client needs”, “I know how to do this”. It’s like holding clay. I’m just holding the clay and watching it as it moulds itself. 

A Play therapy session can be a client that’s throwing a ball from one wall to the other, it can be a client who doesn’t want to talk to me at all, it can be a client who just wants to sit on my lap but then we have to talk about whether that’s safe or unsafe. Then you also have to take into consideration where a child is coming from. Is this a child who has experienced bad touch? How willing am I to allow the child to use my body as a canvas to experience what good touch is? Because how can a child know bad touch from good touch if the child’s never had the chance to experience good touch? You provide a space to experience trust and affection and safety in someone whom they feel like they can experience those things with. It’s a beautiful spectrum.

Valerie- You’ve spoken to us about such a serious topic while giving us this answer. You told us that it doesn’t only delve into the kind of tools they’re playing with and trying to understand them through that but you also have to teach them so much because at the end of the day, they are children and unless they know the difference between good and bad, there’s no way for them to them to understand if something that’s happening to them is right or wrong.

How do you reach out to your clients, these children? You said some of them don’t talk to you for the entire 40 minute session. How do you reach out to them and break that wall?

Anya- Play is a child’s language and toys are their words. There’s so much therapy that’s happening even if a child isn’t playing because they are invited into a play room and they’re invited to play but they don’t have to. It’s completely their space, it’s their rules. They can say what they want, they can do what they want. What a therapist does if a child doesn’t want to engage, or even is engaging, is I hold the space. I mean that I have my eyes around them continuously for 40 minutes, I am mirroring their movement, I am completely attuned to them. When I say attunement, I mean I’m attuned to their energy, their body language, the inflection in their voices, the kind of stories they’re weaving with their toys, it’s like I’m hearing a client in more ways than one. There’s a lot of body language that’s communicated, it’s far more than words, it’s far more than play. I’m completely attuned to the sense of being like a client’s canvas. Even if they’re building a story in a sand tray, I am carrying the energy that a child leaves in a room. 

I think so much of working with children and teaching children happens in a way when you’re not really trying to. It’s sort of like you’re holding sand in your hand and you’re allowing it to do what you feel like it needs to do. You know how to keep the child safe, maybe you’re teaching the child boundaries to an extent but most of it is demonstration, and I think the biggest tool is actually empathy. When I said attunement and listening to the child in more ways than one, what it is, is empathy. I’m listening to how it feels to be in that sitting position, how it feels to jump up in a standing position, how it feels to turn your body away from me during a session and to slowly look over your shoulder at me. I’ve had that with clients. There’s just so much deep empathy in the sense that I’m almost embodying what the client is going through and that’s the deepest level of empathy and there’s no other deeper way to connect to anybody.

Valerie- Anya, thank you so much for talking to us today. For explaining to us what Play Therapy is. We’ve learnt so much from you apart from just the topic of Play Therapy. We’ve learnt that you discover the world, you discover yourselves, you discover empathy and sharing when you’re a child but when you grow into adulthood, the importance of Play Therapy could also be recognizing and nurturing the child in you and that playing can just make your body happy! What’ve we’ve learnt from you is also your personal experience, your passion to integrate creative techniques, not just talk therapy but you go on to talk about playing, art, so many other alternative means of therapy, and you interact with your clients, work on a relationship with that client so that you understand them better and most importantly, you empathize with them. As you said, that’s probably the best way to connect with somebody. Thank you so much for talking to us about Play Therapy.

Anya- My pleasure! I’m always happy to talk about it. Thanks for having me again, Valerie. 

Valerie- Thank you.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Writing Therapy ft. Courtney Ackerman

There’s a quote by Anne Frank that goes “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

Also follow us on:
Apple Podcasts

Valerie-  Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re discussing Writing Therapy with Courtney Ackerman, a researcher, the author of three published books on positive psychology-related topics, and a regular contributor to the Positive Psychology program. In her independent work, she mostly focuses on compassion, well-being, and survey research.

Hey, Courtney!

Courtney- Hi, Valerie. Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie- Thank you. Why don’t you start by telling us how writing has an impact on our mental health?

Courtney- Absolutely. It’s a big question because there are tons of positive impacts of writing on our health. Not only do we sort of get to know ourselves better but we get to understand the world around us and other people better. When we start to write down our thoughts and feelings, it helps us process them, get a hold of them and work through them in a way that we normally don’t, if we don’t write it down or discuss them or investigate them with curiosity. Writing can help with a ton of different things. 

Just a few of the research findings have shown that it leads to better health outcomes in terms of lower blood pressure, improvement in lung function, reductions in symptoms in all different kinds of illness, better immune system functioning, even improvements in things like anxiety and depression and substance abuse, eating disorders and post traumatic stress. On top of all that, it gives you those really great insights about yourself, it helps you get shifts in your perspective that can help you interact with yourself and with the world around you, which can result in better relationships, both with yourself and with the people around you. It might be quicker to answer “What doesn’t writing help you with?”!

Valerie-  Right. Could you tell us what Writing Therapy is and how it compares to conventional Psychotherapy?

Courtney- Writing Therapy is just another form of therapy. Just like all the other forms, it’s something that’s focused on the client’s mental and emotional well-being. It’s focused on healing and so it’s got the same usual goals of improving the client’s functioning and helping them with their problems and helping them feel better. It’s sort of a typical working relationship between the client and the therapist but the difference with Writing Therapy is that it’s very focused on journaling, on writing. 

It’s sometimes also called “Expressive Disclosure” or “Expressive Writing”, which I really like because it focuses on what you’re doing, when you’re doing Writing Therapy, and that’s not just writing anything but you’re writing expressively. You’re expressing yourself, you’re diving into things that are difficult or things that are going on in your head. It allows you to express and exercise those negative emotions to get things off your chest. Just that act of writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them in a much simpler and more straightforward way. It helps you to identify what it is that’s wrong so that you can then work on it with a qualified mental health professional.

Valerie- When you were telling us about this, you did mention that Writing Therapy is all about expressing your thoughts through the way you write and gaining a better insight on your surroundings. Is there a significant difference between Writing Therapy and journaling?

Courtney- There is a difference. They are very related and of course one can complement the other but there are a few major differences between Writing Therapy and journaling. The first one is that Writing Therapy is led by a licensed mental health professional so you can do all the journaling you like on your own and that can be really great but Writing Therapy in particular is when that process is guided by someone who has been trained and is licensed in this arena and can help you with exercises and prompts and ideas and can help you work through the things that you’ve written down, so there’s that component that’s different. 

Another difference between Writing Therapy and journaling is that journaling is usually sort of off the cuff. You write about what happened in your day and what you’re feeling. Therapeutic writing is more directed- it’s usually guided by prompts or exercises. It;s not necessarily free-form where you write about whatever you’d like. It’s more guided. Third, journaling is more about what happened in your day and how you’re feeling about that while Writing Therapy is actually engaging with your thoughts and feelings. Not necessarily recording them or responding to events that are happening in your life but actually diving deep, thinking about and analysing your own thoughts and feelings. It’s this sort of meta activity where you’re thinking about thinking and you’re feeling about feeling, and you’re really diving in on a deeper level than most people usually do when they journal. 

Valerie-  Right. So journaling would basically be an outlet to your thoughts and a way for you to express yourself through that whereas Writing Therapy might be engaging with your thoughts and analysing it and trying to understand what you feel. Is that right?

Courtney- Right, exactly. You can journal however you like so usually some people would journal in this way but generally, people just sort of journal writing about what happened in their day, what they think about it, what they’re looking forward to. Writing Therapy would be more like – this thing happened, these are the thoughts that occurred after, this is why I think I’m having these thoughts, this is what I feel about having these thoughts, it’s just sort of peeling back a layer, getting a little bit deeper into engaging with those thoughts and those feelings that you’re having. 

Valerie- Courtney, what got you interested in writing and journaling, and authoring three published books?

Courtney- You know, actually that number is upto five! My fifth came out in December. Clearly I’m a fan of writing, I like writing a lot. I’ve actually always really liked writing but for a long time, I never really did it regularly and I never really sat down with an intention for myself. Of course you sit down with an intention to write papers and to write books or articles but I never really sat down and wrote with an intention for myself, just sort of writing for me. When I discovered that this is sort of a way of doing things and that there are a lot of Writing Therapy exercises and things you can do in that arena, it really resonated with me. It helped me let go of these things that I was holding down to, things that are frustrating or difficult or negative, the things that can weigh you down. I found that writing them down was the best way for me personally, to let them go. 

For me, journaling is an excellent way to relieve stress, an excellent way to get those thoughts and feelings down, to let go of the more negative or unpleasant ones, or to sort of record the more positive ones. I don’t just journal about the negatives, I also jurnal about what’s going right, what’s great in my life, what I’m grateful for. It makes it feel more real when it’s down on paper. It’s such an excellent way of dealing with your thoughts and feelings. When it’s in your head, it’s all a big jumble. When you write it down, things can start to make a lot more sense. One of my favourite things about journaling as a mental health activity is that there are virtually no barriers to entry. If you can write, you can have a direct active role in your own healing. You don’t need anything else. If you have paper and a pen, you can journal!

Valerie- It’s so wonderful that you found writing to be a way for you to let go of things that you’ve been holding onto and the things that have been weighing you down, and you took that personal experience, knowing that it works for you, to write books to help people as well. You wrote books on positive psychology and I think that’s wonderful, taking an experience and using it to help people. 

Courtney- Thank you. When you find something that works for you, you want to share it with people. That’s my goal. If even one person finds my books and enjoys the exercises or the techniques in there or finds them useful, then it was totally worth it. I’m a helper! I like to help people So whenever I find something that really works for me, I wonder who else this could work for, I wonder who else this could help, and I try to find a way to get it down on paper and get it out to people.

Valerie- You did mention when you talked about Writing Therapy, that it’s something that’s usually prompted. It’s not free form writing. What I wanted to ask you is that are there different types of writing practices under therapy that help give an outlet to one’s emotions or what they’re feeling? 

Courtney- Absolutely. There are a lot of different techniques and you’d sort of have to dive into the different exercises and prompts and techniques out there in Writing Therapy but some of the main ones are writing about traumatic or stressful events. That’s used a lot for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or any kind of reaction to a stressful event. It doesn’t necessarily need to be diagnosed PTSD to help you deal with stress but that’s one of the most common things that you’ll find. You’ll be guided to write about the stressful or traumatic experience that you suffered, and kind of work through it, process through it, work with a qualified mental health professional to process it, and it can help make the whole experience a little bit less salient, a little bit less impactful on you today. The more that you go through it and write about it in a safe space, the less impact it has on your day to day life. So that’s a pretty common exercise for people in Writing Therapy. 

There are tons of different techniques to follow thoughts, deconstruct them. Say you’re dealing with low self-esteem and you’re not feeling great about yourself. Writing Therapy might help you figure out one particular reason that you’re not feeling good about yourself. Maybe feeling like “I’m not successful”. Then it’ll help you walk back from that thought, all the way to the core. So you’ll start with “I’m not successful”, and then you’ll ask “Why does that matter?” Then you’ll walk back to thinking “There’s this rule that you must be successful to be happy.” Then you’ll ask yourself, “Well, do you really need to be successful to be happy?” And so it’s this step by step process where you’re following a thought or a feeling all the way back to a core belief and then figuring out whether you like that core belief. Whether that’s something that you want to hold onto, whether it’s helping you or hurting you, and if it’s hurting you then create a new one in its place. Instead of “You must be successful to be happy”, it can be “I deserve to be happy now, whether I’m successful or not”.

Valerie- That’s actually really interesting, that you would work backwards from something as simple as a sentence and then you’d use that to introspect and see whether what’s being said in the world is something that you actually believe or whether it’s something that works for you. It’s such a beautiful way that something can help you. You start with something so small and you can end up in learning so much about yourself.

Courtney- Absolutely. That’s why I love it too. It gives you tools to really dive in because we all have these core beliefs but if you ask someone on the street what their core beliefs are, they’re probably not going to be able to say much. When you sit with your thoughts and write them down, and ask yourself questions and introspect, this stuff comes up. There’s pretty much nobody out there that has a set of beliefs that have completely been analysed or agreed with, without any issues. We all have those core beliefs we are unsure of, that come from our parents or society, that maybe we don’t like or believe anymore and you don’t really think about those core beliefs until you start writing them down and engaging with them.

Valerie- True. Courtney, what’s a simple way to get started? Does one need to have a flair for writing to try out Writing Therapy or journaling?

Courtney- Absolute not! You do not need to be a writer to write in a journal. Like I said earlier, one of my favorite things about journaling and Writing Therapy is that you don’t need anything in particular. You don’t need any skills. As long as you can write, you can engage in this kind of stuff. It’s best to engage with a professional if you want to do actual directed Writing Therapy but there are definitely tons of steps that you can take on your own and a lot of my books are focused on that. There are exercises that you can do on your own, at home or at work or wherever you are, and just dive into this stuff. There’s one easy acronym that I really like, to get started and it’s the WRITE method, that comes from Cathleen Adams at the Centre for Journal Therapy. She’s brilliant, you should go check out that website if you want to know more. As an easy way to get started, think WRITE:

W – What do you want to write about? Name it, label it. Give it a name. 

R- Review or reflect on it. Write it down and just think about it, toss it around, feel it out. Reflect on this thing that you want to write about.

I – Investigate your thoughts and feelings. You start writing and you just keep writing, and approach it with curiosity. Approach it as if you’re a researcher, researching your own thoughts and feelings. Get curious and ask questions and keep writing. 

T – Timer. Use a timer, set it from anywhere between two minutes to thirty minutes, and then just keep writing until the timer goes off. Usually people think that ten minutes is a lot and before they know it, the time is gone!

E – Exit the journaling session by re-reading what you’ve written after that timer goes off and then just reflect on it with one or two sentences. You may reflect on it by saying “Wow! I had a lot more to write about than I thought. It’s interesting that this came up”. Just closing it out by looking at what you’ve written and giving it a little summary.

Valerie- It’s so nice that you said that at the end of it, after you start writing and you reflect on it and you set a timer and you keep writing, at the end of it you sit down and reflect on what you’ve written, you see what you can take away from it. You don’t just write and let it be, it’s a way of understanding yourself better so you sit with it, you understand what you’ve written and where you can go from there. I think that’s such a good thing to do and such a good thing to put into practice. 

Courtney- Right. I totally agree. Usually when we journal, we don’t usually re-read what we’ve written. We kind of journal, close the book and put it away and maybe open it the next day and journal again, which is great but taking that time to review it at the end and to really think about it, that’s what takes it to a next level.

Valerie- Makes sense. Courtney, thank you so much for talking to us today about Writing Therapy. We’ve learnt so much from you and gained a better insight into what Writing Therapy is. We’ve learnt that we get to know ourselves better, we get to know the world around us better, and we can just sit and engage with our thoughts and express ourselves in a way that whatever we feel in weighing us down or something we’re holding onto, we can exercise releasing those negative emotions. Thank you for letting us know that and for the work you do when it comes to writing and psychology and positivity.

Courtney- Thank you! And you’re welcome. I’m happy to do it. I’m happy that people are engaging with these subjects. It’s really exciting.

Valerie- Thank you so much. 

Representation of Neurodivergence in Media

“If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism” 

This is a common saying when talking about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), precisely the reason why it’s known to be a spectrum; different people experience the symptoms in different ways. But when it comes to the media, movies and tv shows, is it represented the way it should be? 

Imagine the last time you saw a character with Autism in a movie or tv show, it could be the character of Shaun Murphy on ‘The Good Doctor’, Sam Gardner on ‘Atypical’, or even Sheldon Cooper on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ (although the writers have never confirmed it). Now, most people would think that this is amazing, that having positive representations of Autism would be a good thing, but is it really?

The answer is neither in black nor white.

When we first think about Autism, we think of characters who are socially awkward, avoid eye contact, maybe are hypersensitive to stimuli, but at the same time are all geniuses in their field. However, only around 10% of people with autism have Savant abilities. Every person on the spectrum experiences it differently, some might be verbal, some non-verbal; some might be able to mask their symptoms well, while some might not. It doesn’t reduce the impact that Autism has on their lives. And the problem is, while one side of it is represented, calling for stories and dramatization, a whole other side of it isn’t. 

Even though Sheldon is never confirmed to be Autistic, why does everyone categorize him as being on the spectrum? Why do we think so, when it is not really accurate? Well, for most people, exposure to Autism comes only from the media and we associate the stereotypes portrayed in the media with our belief systems about Autism. The more number of times a character is portrayed with the above-mentioned attributes, the more these beliefs are strengthened and voila! People now have a fixed perception about Autism.

While media representation can help end stigma and can lead to a positive attitude about Autism, it can also have negative effects, such as propagating stereotypes and inaccuracies.

Yes, this might not be a deliberate move, but in the whole process, it can make people who, “Don’t look like they have Autism”, difficult to access services and care, when in reality, they might just be better at masking the difficulties that they have. This causes them a lot of stress and anxiety. Even parents may ignore symptoms that their child has, just because they don’t display these stereotypical behaviours. This becomes a classic case of, ‘good intention, bad execution’ and, ‘negative effect’.

So what can be done? Do we stop portraying neurodivergent characters altogether?

Well, no. First things first, film makers and scriptwriters must talk to the people that they want to represent; those on the spectrum. The neurodivergent community has been asking for accurate representation for a very long time, and according to them, neurotypical (individuals who do not have a diagnosis of Autism or any other developmental disorder) actors portraying neurodivergent traits reduces something so complex, nuanced, and beautiful, into a trait that anyone can imitate on screen, which isn’t the right thing to do. Also, if we look closely, there are close to no female characters with Autism being represented. This is a result of a deeper phenomenon (Our article coming out next week, explores this in greater detail.)

The argument that might rise is, ‘Hey, isn’t it only acting?’ 

Yes, but it must be kept in mind that while the community is having positive representation in the media, they are still being portrayed through a neurotypical lens. They are also constantly being left out of opportunities and underrepresented in real life. Disability has a 2% representation rate in the popular media, and out of that tiny figure, only 5% of disabled characters are played by disabled actors.  So in the long run, isn’t this doing more harm than good?

Filmmakers and scriptwriters must understand the responsibility that they have and the impact that their films can make, and realize that having large audiences that watch them having a neurodivergent character just for the sake of token diversity and comic relief, won’t work.  Stories need not be dramatic but that doesn’t mean that everything must be an educational booklet about Autism. Creativity in human beings is limitless and beyond boundaries, and the right stories can definitely be told in the way that they deserve to be.