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.

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.

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

References

[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

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.                                                       

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

What is ASD?

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or just ‘Autism’ as it is referred to commonly, is a neurological disorder that is known to cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges in the development of an individual. It is known as a ‘spectrum’ disorder because the people affected experience a wide range of symptoms, each of them unique in severity. 

People with Autism often need a lot of help navigating day-to-day life, but the degree of help required varies depending upon how well the individual is able to balance their disorder and life. 

They usually do not look any different from those who are unaffected; the only tell-tales are in the way they behave and interact with others. However, it is important to remember that they are full human beings with valid feelings, too, which should be acknowledged and respected.

What are the signs and symptoms to look out for?

Children and adults with Autism face difficulty in social situations, especially when it comes to communicating what they want to say. They also have trouble conveying their emotions, and tend to avoid human interaction altogether due to this. 

Some common signs that individuals with Autism display include:

  • In children: Delay in learning to speak
  • Inability to create or hold eye contact
  • Hypersensitivity or Hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli
  • Have difficulty in reading others’ gestures and intentions
  • Often want to be alone
  • Have trouble relating to others or forming connections
  • Repeat their motor movements
  • Have very rigid thinking patterns
  • Shy away from human touch
  • Avoid talking about their feelings
  • Have trouble adjusting to changes in routine
  • Repeat certain words and/or phrases: Echolalia

However, people with Autism are also more often than not, extremely talented in other non-routine activities. This is called the Savant Syndrome. 

For example, there might be someone who can’t concentrate in Mathematics class, but can do 1359357 x 1359357 in his mind at the drop of a pin. There might be someone who could replicate the Mona Lisa, but would not be able to smile at societally-dictated occasions. Darold Traffert, famous psychiatrist, has extensively studied this syndrome, and suggests that, ‘savant skills may result from the formation of exceptional neural structures during prenatal brain development.’ While there is controversial evidence mounting against the study of this syndrome, evidence suggests that there is a strong genetic link between family members displaying similar talents. 

It is extremely vital that we treat them just as we would treat anyone else, and not differentiate based on ability. 

What are the causes of ASD?

We do not know all the causes of ASD, but we do know that there are predominantly genetic and biological factors involved, such as:

  • Taking certain medicines meant for epilepsy and cancer during pregnancy, such as valproic acid and thalidomide
  • Children born to older parents are at higher risk
  • Children with a sibling with ASD are also likely to inherit ASD
  • Individuals with certain genetic or chromosomal conditions, such as tuberous sclerosis, can have a greater chance of having it
  • Children with very low birth weight are also at risk

ASD occurs among all racial, ethnic, and blood groups, but it has been found that it is 4 times more common among boys than in girls. 

How can we diagnose and treat ASD?

Since there is no blood or other medical test that can diagnose ASD, doctors have to look at a child’s early behaviour and development to make a diagnosis. 

Another problem with ASD is that it takes a longer time to diagnose, which means that children don’t get the early help that they require. There is also no known cure as such for ASD. However, research shows that early intervention in the form of helping children learn essential skills such as walking, talking, basic speech therapy, etc. 

While learning these skills can make a child feel extremely self-conscious and unsure, it is crucial to a child’s development, and it is important to ensure that the child receives it at the right stage. 

How can we be more empathetic towards people with Autism?

It is human nature to fear and discriminate against that which we don’t understand. The same is the case with respect to people with Autism. It is sad because they are often subjected to derogatory and hurtful name-calling such as ‘retard’ and ‘dork’, when in reality they’re just as human as everyone else. It would be very upsetting for any ‘normal’ person to listen to such things, so imagine how it would feel for those extremely talented people who have been misunderstood all their lives. 

So how can we be more empathetic towards such individuals?

As a parent, encourage the talents of your child. 

As a teacher, be vigilant and identify the signs and symptoms as early as possible. 

As a friend, make sure the person isn’t left out in whatever you do together.

As a decent human being, be more accepting.

Remember, Autism is just an illness that a person has. The person is not the illness, themself. 

Mindfulness Techniques to Fight Self Harm

Trigger Warning: Mentions of self-harm, depression, suicide

Self-harm is a taboo topic, even in today’s world of acceptance of Pride and no prejudices. When we hear that someone self-harms, 70% of the time, the first reaction we’d have is one of horror. Not even disbelief, pity or anything else, just plain horror, followed by a poor attempt to empathize. Very few of us try to help the person out, mainly because we don’t understand what they’re going through. But that’s just our conditioning. We’ve been taught to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable and go with the crowd. It’s time to have a breakthrough. 

What is self-harm?

Self-harm or self-injury means hurting oneself intentionally. Self-harm is not a mental health illness in itself. Rather, it displays an inability of the person affected to cope with a certain illness, most often something like bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder

To the people who self-harm: know this. You are not going through this alone. Self-harm is not something you have to live with all your life, and there are loads of people to narrate their experiences and support you. You need only reach out to seek help.

Why do people self-harm?

There is no scientific answer to this. Some people say they do it to relieve stress. Some others say they do it because the physical pain is better than the mental pain. It is a sign of great emotional distress, and the person is often engulfed by feelings of shame, frustration, guilt, and pain. Some common reasons that people reported include:

  • Relapse from alcohol or drug use
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Low self-esteem
  • Peer pressure
  • Bullying
  • Family issues

But there is no weakness in asking for help. In fact, it takes great courage to open up and talk about your feelings. If you do feel overwhelmed by these negative feelings, please, reach out to someone. 

Who are the people most prone to self-harm?

Though self harm is something that can affect anyone, this practice is most commonly found in young adults and adolescents, starting especially from one’s teenage years. People from unstable homes or those who have experienced trauma, neglect, and/or abuse in their early lives are also prone to self-harm. 

If you are a loved one of a person who self-harms, it is important to note that self-harm is not a cry of help or a demand for attention. But this does not mean that people who self-harm don’t need care and compassion. When someone opens up about their pain, chances are that it’s not your opinion they seek; it’s your acceptance. A simple smile goes a long way!

How can we fight the urge to self-harm?

While there are no tablets or tonics for it, psychologists and therapists all over the world do commonly recommend some grounding techniques and on-the-spot hacks that can help a person relieve their urge to self-harm.

Some of the most popular grounding techniques prescribed by therapists are:

  1. Progressive Muscle Relaxation:  This is a very simple deep-relaxation technique prescribed to reduce anxiety, stress, insomnia, and many other illnesses. Here is how it works:

While inhaling, clench/contract one type of muscle in your body. For example, your biceps, for 5-10 seconds, and then when you exhale, unclench it. After relaxing for 10 seconds, move on to another group of muscles, and repeat the same. 

TIP: Try to visualize the contraction and releasing of tension of the muscles in your body, so that it adds more focus to the activity. Also try visualizing all the stress and pain leaving your body with each release of tension. That helps a lot!

  1. 5-4-3-2-1 Technique: This is an interesting alternative focus technique. Look around your surroundings and answer the following questions:
  • What are 5 things you see (in a particular colour)?
  • What are 4 things you feel?
  • What are 3 things you hear?
  • What are 2 things you smell?
  • What is 1 thing you taste?

Other informal mindfulness/grounding techniques you can try include:

  1. Mental Grounding exercises: 

i) Describe an everyday activity, like brushing your teeth, in detail, to yourself
ii) Try to think of as many things in one category, like dogs or plants or musicians, as you can! Tests your knowledge, too.
iii) Count 1 to 100, but spell out the alphabets. O…N…E, T…W…O, etc.

  1. Physical Grounding exercises:

i) Run warm or cool water down the place where you usually self-harm
ii) Alternatively, try to hold an ice cube in your hand for as long as you can
iii) Jump up and down

You can also carry a grounding object with you, a small pen, a rock, a ring, a marble…anything you can touch and take comfort from when you feel frustrated or anxious or stressed. As with the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique, you can also visualize your object drawing the negative energy away from you, in order for it to be more effective!


Do you feel like you have no one who listens to you? Do you want someone to vent to? Talk to a LonePack Buddy today!

What makes you, you?

Identify your values to lead a meaningful life

As we grow up, Life can seem to become more complicated. We’re faced with difficult decisions where the “right” choice might not always be easy or apparent. Choosing to pursue your relationship when your family is against it. Ending an abusive and toxic relationship. Being open about your gender or sexual identity. We might end up feeling stuck, with no way out of the situation. In those cases, a strong sense of who you are and your core values, can empower you and give back control of your life.

Lessons from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of psychotherapy that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior change strategies to increase psychological flexibility. In ACT, identifying your values is central to enforcing commitment and, the more personal the values, the better you are able to enforce them. This awareness allows you to be mindful of your actions and damaging behavioral patterns and correct them. Following are a few examples by which this therapeutic approach may be applied for common disorders.

One of the symptoms of anxiety is overthinking. We don’t have control over other people’s decisions, past or future circumstances or even our own emotional reactions to situations but we do have control over our own decisions. In order to break the fatalistic overthinking pattern, it would be helpful to identify your values and if your actions in these make-believe scenarios conform to them.

People who suffer from Depression might feel unenthusiastic about their life because they’re stuck. While it is true that there are a lot of factors that lock us into these situations which feel inescapable, having the mental fortitude can lend an inner strength. Starting small, with just one value and how to improve your life around this value can be the breakthrough strategy to realizing the infinite possibilities to change your life.

Note: The above examples are simplified for easier understanding, however, they are in no way a representation of the entire scope of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as practiced in a professional setting.

Identifying Your Values

The following is a list of common values. This is in no way an exhaustive list and it is encouraged to add or edit these values to suit your personal experience. You may mark a ‘V’ for very important, ‘Q’ for Quite important and ‘N’ for Not that important across each of the goals.

  • Acceptance/self-acceptance: to be accepting of myself, others, life, etc.
  • Adventure: to be adventurous; to actively explore novel or stimulating experiences
  • Assertiveness: to respectfully stand up for my rights and request what I want
  • Authenticity: to be authentic, genuine, and real; to be true to myself
  • Caring/self-care: to be caring toward myself, others, the environment, etc.
  • Compassion/self-compassion: to act kindly toward myself and others in pain
  • Connection: to engage fully in whatever I’m doing and be fully present with others
  • Contribution and generosity: to contribute, give, help, assist, or share
  • Cooperation: to be cooperative and collaborative with others
  • Courage: to be courageous or brave; to persist in the face of fear, threat, or difficult
  • Creativity: to be creative or innovative
  • Curiosity: to be curious, open-minded, and interested; to explore and discover
  • Encouragement: to encourage and reward behavior that I value in myself or others
  • Engagement: to engage fully in what I am doing
  • Fairness and justice: to be fair and just to myself and others
  • Fitness: to maintain or improve or look after my physical and mental health
  • Flexibility: to adjust and adapt readily to changing circumstances
  • Freedom and independence: to choose how I live and help others do likewise
  • Friendliness: to be friendly, companionable, or agreeable toward others
  • Forgiveness/self-forgiveness: to be forgiving toward myself or others
  • Fun and humor: to be fun loving; to seek, create, and engage in fun-filled activities
  • Gratitude: to be grateful for and appreciative of myself, others, and life
  • Honesty: to be honest, truthful, and sincere with myself and others
  • Industry: to be industrious, hardworking, and dedicated
  • Intimacy: to open up, reveal, and share myself, emotionally or physically
  • Kindness: to be kind, considerate, nurturing, or caring toward myself or others
  • Love: to act lovingly or affectionately toward myself or others
  • Mindfulness: to be open to, engaged in and curious about the present moment
  • Order: to be orderly and organized
  • Persistence and commitment: to continue resolutely, despite problems or difficulties.
  • Respect/self-respect: to treat myself and others with care and consideration
  • Responsibility: to be responsible and accountable for my actions
  • Safety and protection: to secure, protect, or ensure my own safety or that of others
  • Sensuality and pleasure: to create or enjoy pleasurable and sensual experiences
  • Sexuality: to explore or express my sexuality
  • Skillfulness: to continually practice and improve my skills and apply myself fully
  • Supportiveness: to be supportive, helpful and available to myself or others
  • Trust: to be trustworthy; to be loyal, faithful, sincere, and reliable
  • Other:
  • Other:
    Russ Harris, 2013 Adapted from The Confidence Gap: From Fear to Freedom, by Russ Harris, Penguin Group (Australia), 2010.

The activity of identifying values can seem daunting at first glance. It might be made easier through the following activity.

Imagine you are 85 years old and all your friends are gathered to celebrate your birthday. One of your friends gets up to give a speech about your life.

If you had lived your life as you currently do, what are the most memorable qualities in the speech?

Now, take a moment to reflect upon the list of values. 

Imagine that you have made changes to how you live your life that revolves around your values. Now, if your friend made a speech, what are the most memorable qualities in it?

myStrength

How to Live your Values

While becoming aware of your values is a big first step, choosing your everyday actions to reflect them takes dedication and explicit intention. To make it easier, it might be useful to come up with 5 goals that aim at improving your lifestyle around your core values. Then, think back on how these values have been disregarded in the past, the more specific the experience the better. Now, with these memories in mind, come up with enforceable daily, weekly and monthly goals. It is key to start small and be specific when creating this list.

With commitment to your values, you can start to live your life with intention. However, it is unavoidable that we may sometimes slip back into unhealthy behavioral patterns. In those situations, you can reset your internal compass by becoming aware of your values and the reasons why they’re important to you. If the values are truly what make you, this exercise can jolt you back into control of your life.

Finally, Your values might be different in different aspects of your life such as family, relationships, work, community, religion, spirituality, etc. It is essential to make the distinction between beliefs and values. Beliefs might be imposed or imparted and are subject to change relatively frequently. However, values are central to your life’s purpose and generally become stronger when you overcome your mental health struggles. In conclusion, an awareness of your values helps in decision making and allows you to take control of your life and enforcing these values in your day to day life can impart a sense of meaning and direction to your life.

Sensory Processing Sensitivity: An Overview

We are exposed to internal and external stimuli at almost every moment in our lives, its forms being physical, emotional and biological; it is either foisted upon us or we willingly welcome it. Each individual’s management of and reactions to these impulses vary in intensity—while in some people, the cognitive processes unfolding behind the scenes might be cursory, in some others these processes involve and are driven by a heightened sensitivity of the central nervous system. The topography and depth of these processes, referred to as sensory processing sensitivity, is measured in order to discern the strength of one’s responsiveness to stimuli. 

What is Sensory Processing Sensitivity?


Sensory processing sensitivity (SPS) is a personality trait that is represented by an increased sensitivity[2] to sensory stimuli, however subtle or miniscule. It is measured and calculated using a questionnaire that inquires the respondent’s sensitivity to stimuli. A high measure of SPS in a person is indicative of a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). An important consideration to note and remember about SPS is that it is not a disorder, and that the similarly named sensory processing disorder is different. SPS is simply a personality temperament that characterizes a class of people referred to as Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs). These terms were coined by Dr. Elaine Aron in the mid-1990s, a pioneer in the study and the proliferation of SPS and HSPs in academia and society.

Who can be categorised as a highly sensitive person?

Since an HSP is someone who is simply more receptive and responsive to subtleties around them, this trait can be found in people of all ages, from babies, children, teenagers and adults, affecting about 15-20% of the population. It is an innate quality, and has also been found in non-human species[1].

What are the traits of a HSP?

HSP have been observed[1] to be more prone to having a “pause to check” reaction when presented with a novel situation. They are also found weaving strong, deep and complex cognitive maps, mostly based on emotional processes and reactions, whether positive or negative. A highly sensitive person can be identified through the following tangible characteristics[3]:

  • Prone to sensory overload. Chaotic environments such as those containing loud noises, strong smells and graphic images deeply overwhelm HSPs.
  • Low pain tolerance. The threshold for pain of any kind, physical or emotional, of HSPs is lower than that of non-HSPs.
  • Easily moved. An HSP is often vehemently moved by evocative forms of art such as imagery, music and dance. They are also more nature-inclined than most. HSPs are also often deep thinkers, due to their complex cognitive processing pathways. As a result, they might also be seekers to life’s big questions, diving deep into the WHY of things that happen in and around their lives, and might become upset when they don’t encounter satisfactory answers.
  • Deeply perceptive. They recognize and pick up on other people’s discomfort, unease or any other negative emotion, and might even absorb the moods of others.
  • Rich inner world. HSPs are people who can get lost in the landscape of their inner world, and are often found in a state of trance and daydreaming.
  • Avoiding of violence. HSPs often cannot handle violent depictions of any kind, whether in media or in real life. Cruel and brutal situations affect HSPs, making them upset and sometimes even prone to physical symptoms such as nausea, or at the very least leave them feeling deeply unsettled.
  • Conflict avoidant. Since disputes have the potential to rake up unpleasant emotions, HSPs tend to avoid them as a protective measure to their sensitivity.
  • Prone to withdrawing. When the world around HSPs keeps shifting and changing, and when things become overwhelming as a result of being bombarded by stimuli, HSPs have the tendency to retreat in order to allow their mind to catch up with their external surroundings.

Reminders to HSP

  • Allow yourself to retreat. You are allowed to withdraw from environments, people, situations and things that make you uncomfortable, even if you were conditioned to believe that it is the norm, or that you should stick it up. You are not a quitter for engaging in unapologetic self-preservation.
  • Make time to rest. It is easy, especially in the edifice of capitalism, to feel “lazy” for needing more rest than what others, or even you, deem the norm. This results in a tendency to work more than you can handle and edge into burnout. Remember, Rest is an indispensable requisite, not a luxury you can opt out of.
  • Feel however you deem necessary. The way you feel is justified, even if the people around you do not understand the intensity, potency and ferocity of it. You are allowed to carve out the space you need to express yourself to the fullest, without suppressing your feelings.
  • Set boundaries. Not everyone will appreciate your sensitivity, and that’s their choice. It is also your choice to walk away from people who do not hold space for you.
  • Remember, you are strong. Being highly sensitive to and having a low threshold for pain, whether emotional or physical, does not make you weak.
  • Think, process and act for yourself only. You don’t need to burn-out trying to deduce what others might need or think. Trust the people in your life to seek your help if they need to, do not push it on them. This process not only tires you out, but might also breach others’ boundaries.

How can you help HSP?

  • Research and learn. Round up resources to educate yourself on sensory processing sensitivity, and invest time and energy towards realizing their reality. They will thank you for it abundantly.
  • Openly talk about SPS and HSP. About 15-20% of the population have high sensory processing sensitivity, the number reflecting a minority. Learning and openly conversing about these things helps remove the stigma behind sensitivity and its usage as a yardstick for “strength”, and helps push the HSP in your life toward self-acceptance.
  • Do not infantilize them. The intensity of their emotions is not an excuse to treat them as a child and belittle them, nor is it an excuse to tell them that what and how they’re feeling is wrong. Do not treat their emotions as if it were a tantrum.
  • Hold space for the extent of their feelings. Remember that their tendency to viscerally feel does not discount their humanity. Motivate them towards an acknowledgement of the magnificence that they are.
  • Accept their need to withdraw and encourage it. HSPs saunter through life embodying a myriad of emotions, thoughts and questions. Allow them a non-judgemental room to process it all.
  • Communicate clearly. While HSP are susceptible to non-verbal cues, it does not necessarily mean they are always cognizant of their intricacies and origins. Talking to them with clarity allows them peace and strips away any room for anxiety.
  • Support them. HSP often needs reminding that the way they feel is justified, that they deserve rest, and that they are not weak. Remind them that there is nothing repugnant with their sensitivity.
  • Be gentle with them. Since HSP have heightened responsiveness, adopting tender words and actions towards them helps in not overwhelming them.

Reference used and Sources to learn more

  1. Aron EN, Aron A, Jagiellowicz J. Sensory Processing Sensitivity: A Review in the Light of the Evolution of Biological Responsivity. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 2012;16(3):262-282. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1088868311434213
  2. Wikipedia contributors. (2020, December 8). Sensory processing sensitivity. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:24, February 7, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sensory_processing_sensitivity&oldid=993026828
  3. Sarah Corsby, @themindgeek on Instagram | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
  4. Dr. Elaine Aron’s website: The Highly Sensitive Person
  5. Self tests on Dr. Elaine Aron’s website: Self-Tests – The Highly Sensitive Person (not to be treated as a professional diagnosis)