Queer students face enduring mental health challenges, look for support in community

April 21, 2022, 11:42 p.m.

Content warning: this article contains references to suicide. If you or someone you know is in need of help, you can call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.

17 months into the pandemic in August of 2021, Vivek Tanna’s ’22 mental health crisis was induced by “the perfect storm” of events. Tanna had a sense of community before the pandemic, but the geographic distance and virtual scattering all weighed on him heavily.

“In retrospect, I held it together for as long as I could,” Tanna said.

Tanna explained that he was being “pulled in every direction, and all the stars aligned.” As a queer student, he was living multiple lives. 

“There’s my life at Stanford, where I’m as ‘out’ as possibly can be,” Tanna said. “But at the same time I hadn’t come out to my parents because I didn’t feel that it was the right time. I was living these two lives, and I just didn’t have the energy to uphold that boundary anymore.”

“All of the boundaries kind of collapsed” in the thick of what he described as a manic episode. Tanna called 911, and came out to his parents over FaceTime in front of police officers.

A previous Daily article chronicled the struggles of queer students who, like Tanna, were out at Stanford, but hid their LGBTQ+ identity when the pandemic sent them back to their hometowns.

Some students, reflecting back upon the pandemic today, said that it forced them into a state of reversion to old feelings and habits.

“I think a lot of us regressed a lot when we went home because of the pandemic,” Thom Henri ’22 said. “Moving back into my parents’ home was really bad for my identity — I felt shame and resentment over being gay in a way that I hadn’t for years. I thought I’d left that behind when I graduated high school.”

Today, months into a relatively “normal” school year, some queer students say that the return to school has allowed them to truly find themselves and feel supported.

“I don’t know when exactly things got better for me — I moved back out, lived with friends and somewhere along the way picked back up the pieces of my identity,” Henri said. “I’m not sure I ever wholly processed the regression I felt or the ways my identity and pride feel more fragile than I thought they were.”

Some queer students like Henri, however, face enduring mental health challenges in the pursuit of community and a sense of identity.

In the United States, queer people are diagnosed with mental illnesses at higher rates than their non-queer counterparts. In fact, although 4.5% of the US population identifies as LGBTQ+, over 39% of people in this category reported having a mental illness in the past year. LGBTQ+ youth are also four times more likely to seriously consider suicide and attempt suicide than their peers. Interviewees similarly pointed to the fact that several of the students who have died at Stanford in the past few years have identified as queer.

“We see queer students unfortunately face a range of challenges that may affect their mental health,” Weiland Health Initative Program Manager Marissa Floro told The Daily. According to Floro, Weiland Health Initiative seeks to “promote mental health and wellness across the spectrum of gender identities and attractions through education, training and clinical services.”

Some of these challenges, Floro said, include “coming out to oneself and others, dealing with microaggressions, misgendering/deadnaming and hate from people and systems on and off campus.”

Other challenges include understanding and managing the impact of hate on one’s body and mental health, and trying to find resources and assistance in a heteronormative, cisnormative, ableist and white supremacist world, according to Floro. These come, she said, in addition to the challenges that many college students face like depression and anxiety.

A sophomore student who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons has struggled with his mental health for several years, an issue which he says is intertwined with his queer identity.

According to the student, his journey of grappling with his queer identity even led to some suicidal ideations. He was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a label which he said added new challenges to his identity.

“Having these two sort of identities, queer and disabled, I think gave me new insight into the barrier that I thought existed being queer,” the student said. “It’s a hard category to be in.”

The student added that after the pandemic settled down and he was able to come to school in person for the first time, his mental health started to improve, which he attributes to reading the book “The Obstacle is the Way” and joining the Stanford Mental Health Outreach (SMHO) club. 

“Being involved in mental health conversations and being aware has really helped me interact with other Stanford students and find a community that’s friendly and open to discussion,” the anonymous student said.

Interviewees stressed that being queer is an integral aspect of their identity that comes with a lot of joy.

“I think I initially saw it as a barrier, but now it’s just an aspect of my identity that allows me to relate to a huge group of people,” the sophomore student said.

“The queer aspect is inescapable at all times,” Tanna added. “Even when there’s a struggle, queer people can also feel a lot of joy, the kind of joy that comes from queer connections, from queer liberation. I think there’s a kind of deep satisfaction and possibility there. Being queer is not at all just a sob story.”

The struggle to find a queer community at Stanford, however, has presented mental health challenges for some queer students, according to Tanna. 

“I don’t think there’s one centralized community at Stanford, although there are pockets of queerness all over the place that aren’t always visible,” Tanna said. “It can be very isolating for people.”

Tanna partially attributed that this lack of a core community to Stanford culture, saying, “Students are overcommitted, the quarter system moves so fast and Stanford flake culture is so big — it just does not lend itself well to a strong queer community.”

Henri explained that questioning students may face additional mental health challenges by this lack of community.

“I don’t think there is a good space for questioning students on campus — and so much of queerness is being in a state of questioning,” they said. “Every single queer person has spent time in a questioning state, so the way our queer communities cater more to those who are already ‘out and proud’ does a disservice to those who are still trying to figure things out and unsure where to go.”

Floro encouraged students to access resources through the Weiland Health Initiative, whose mission is to “promote mental health and wellness across the spectrum of gender identities and attractions through education, training and clinical services.”

“I have been honored to have been in multiple workshops, group spaces, and individual therapy sessions where I witness students feeling empowered, feel like they can be their whole selves, and feel like they’re not alone,” Floro said. “I have seen students cry in relief at being among other students that understand what they’re going through. I have watched students blossom in their relationships and their time at Stanford as they connect to themselves and their own values.”

Author’s note: If you or someone you know is in a similar situation, there are available resources both on and beyond campus.

CAPS and Weiland offer a range of services, including individual therapy and hormone replacement therapy consultations for students in California. For students outside of California, they can also offer support for real-time needs and care management consultations to help arrange for local support if needed. CAPS also has a 24-7 support line for urgent needs: 650-723-3785.

From Weiland Health Initiative Representatives:

The Weiland Health Initiative provides a full range of services for students:

Clinical services: Weiland provides brief individual therapy, group therapy (QTrees starting this quarter!), individual check-ins called Weiland connects sessions, hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgery mental health support consultations.

Advocacy services: In conjunction with QSR, Weiland provides financial support called the QT Fund (application opening next week!) to help students in their gender and attraction journeys. Weiland also has done various trainings and programs to help bring queer inclusivity to sports teams, academic departments, other clinicians, and staff groups.

Learning and work opportunities: In addition to hiring student workers called Weiland Health Associates (apply now to join our team!), Weiland also teaches lectures throughout the academic year as well as classes that you can take for credit (Wellness 140: Wellness through Queerness & Wellness 191: Peer Education on Comprehensive Sexual Health Education).

Programming: Weiland also provide different workshops and programs throughout the year to help cultivate queer community and wellness; for example, they hold Queer Yoga every Tuesday at 4:30, facilitate workshops for specific intersections of identity, collaborate with student groups and community centers like the WCC, and have held spaces to explore nutrition, non-Western modes of healing, and self-care in moments of high distress.

Queer Student Resources continues to provides resources to connect students, including Trans& meetings, affinity groups, student staff and professional staff. Students can also join the listservs of various queer student groups like La Familia, BlaQs and Queer & Asian, as well as the the Vaden Flourishing Alliance listserv to be notified of events, new programming, and opportunities to connect.

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