On Sunday, November 6, the Karma Centre for Counselling and Wellbeing in Vasant Vihar was host to a unique workshop on queerness and mental health.
The day long workshop drew a small but enthusiastic group of participants from various fields, and aimed at building much-needed awareness around identities that fall under the umbrella term “LGBTQIA+”.
Organized by counselling psychologist Manavi Khurana and clinical psychologist Dr Rajat Thukral, the workshop included a component on ally-building. It also took a detailed look at the oft-erased asexuality spectrum. Further, it had a very sex-positive approach, by including information on safer sex options that persons of any gender or orientation ought to know about.
A lot of research and reflection went into preparing the workshop. “We had to think about what terms we were using, what information to put in onto the slides, what not to put in,” says Thukral. “I was thinking about how somebody who identifies as LGBTQIA+ would perceive some of the materials we put together.”
When asked about why they chose to organize the workshop, it is this same reflective process that Thukral points to. “There is a lack of education and training on working with LGBTQIA+ individuals,” she says. “We want to help them feel comfortable talking about difference. We want them to recognize their own biases, and reevaluate them in a safe, non-judgemental environment.”
But it was also the growing conversation around queerness, despite Section 377, that drove the workshop. “Yes it’s a risky proposition, but I wanted to do it,” says Khurana. “It had to be done. A lot of the clients or the people we interact with, we saw that it was something they were curious about. They had either no knowledge or little knowledge about it. And little knowledge is dangerous, so we wanted to bridge that gap.”
The Karma Centre is one of the few queer-friendly counselling centres in the capital, and it means a great deal that it’s exploring the intersection of mental health care and LGBTQIA+ identities. However, there are several challenges to doing this. For one thing, having laws like Section 377 means there are hardly any general statistics about the LGBTQIA+ populations in the first place, so psychological research on those populations is practically non-existent. Most of the researches available to Thukral and Khurana were American, but even those had several issues.
While references like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has been revised to declassify homosexuality as an illness, there are still limitations.
Thukral shares an example of a trans client she was seeing in the US: “As a mental health clinician, when we do assessments with clients, we refer to these manuals which have standardized norms, which are for ‘males’ and ‘females.’ So if I have a trans person in my office and I’m testing that person, there’s no standardized norm for that population! That’s where we are right now!”
Yet it is these very issues that make these efforts that much more significant. The field has had a history of pathologizing queerness. Even today many queer individuals are taken to doctors to be fixed. Luckily, that’s changing.
“Suppose I have a client from the LGBTQIA community,” says Khurana, “We have to know what they’re going through, how they’re struggles are different from ours. Even knowing how they have sex is important. We can’t be completely ignorant about that. This is why we need the workshop.”
When asked if they would run this workshop in schools and colleges, Khurana says she’s open to it, but expects a fair bit of oppositions. She said even university students aren’t allowed to research on sex. “My cousin wanted to do a paper on LGBTQIA mental health and well-being in India, and she was told ‘You can’t choose something controversial.’”
Thukral too notes an unfortunate tendency in universities, where discussions about sensitive subjects like safe sex, sexuality, and mental health become questionable. Further, parents would object to it, and the law isn’t helping any either: “Section 377 prohibits talking about sexuality, and there’s an outright rejection of homosexual relationships. So talking about that in schools and colleges is difficult.”
But a workshop that focuses on building a responsive and supportive infrastructure is of tremendous importance. Especially, given how, as I learnt from the organisers, the rate of suicide is three times higher for the LGBTQIA+ population, and substance abuse is higher as well.
“Allies from the heterosexual community are a significant and majority voice,” says Khurana. “They have a dominant role in the law, and policy-making. They must look at this issue as a human rights issue. It’s more than just what happens in the bedroom, and they need to get the seriousness of that.”
Currently, long-term interns at the Karma Centre are given some basic sex education and information about the sexual spectrum. Through its various workshops and programmes, the centre hopes to reach out to more and more people and educate them about LGBTQIA+ well-being, and that’s certainly wonderful to see.