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Mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin shares 10 tips for LGBT+ people struggling under lockdown: ‘Do what you need to do to get through’

Patrick Kelleher May 10, 2020
Jonny Benjamin MBE mental health campaigner LGBT coronavirus COVID-19

Mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE.

Life is a bit of a rollercoaster right now for mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin.

“For me, it’s extremes of emotion,” he says. “I feel really upbeat at times and then feel really down other times. It’s just a complete mixture of thoughts and feelings.”

It is a sentiment most people will be able to relate to as the world is ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. The crisis has seen most countries go into some form of state-enforced lockdown, meaning many cannot leave their homes, see their loved ones or live their lives as they once did.

It is, in short, a completely overwhelming time. A recent poll from UK mental health charity YoungMinds found that 80 per cent of young people who have experience of mental ill health have seen their conditions worsen since the pandemic began. It is a heartbreaking and potentially fatal side effect of lockdown.

The pandemic also poses particular challenges for the LGBT+ community. Studies have repeatedly shown that queer people experience higher rates of mental ill-health than their straight and cisgender peers. Right now, LGBT+ people across the world are stuck at home, sometimes with non-affirming parents and families, and many are struggling.

Benjamin knows what it’s like to experience mental ill-health. He has schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar.

“I’ve been on medication for years and I’ve had a lot of different types of therapy,” he says.

The campaigner is well-versed in managing his mental health, but that task has become an even greater challenge in the current climate.

Like most people, Benjamin is finding the coronavirus pandemic a difficult, exhausting and upsetting time — issues that are compounded by the fact that he lives alone in London, meaning he has no face-to-face contact. But he is working to stay on top of his mental health, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Below, Benjamin offers 10 tips to LGBT+ people who are struggling with their mental health at this time. There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach here – everyone is different – but Benjamin knows more than most what it takes to stay well during difficult times.

If you are suffering, know this: you are not alone and support is available. At the end of this page, we are including contact information for mental health support services and LGBT+ organisations that can help you.

1. Avoid reading and watching too much coronavirus related news.

It is important to keep up-to-date with developments around coronavirus, but it’s also important to set limits.

Benjamin says that watching daily press briefings were making him feel “unsettled”, so he decided to prioritise his mental health and stop watching them.

“The news is mostly negative, there’s a constant focus on illness and death and there’s a lot of speculation,” he says.

“It’s about knowing what’s right for you in terms of how much you consume. Don’t engage if it’s going to make you more anxious.”

While this time may feel bleak, there are also positive developments happening in the world.

“I’m trying to focus on all the good stuff that’s happening,” Benjamin says. “Looking at Captain Tom Moore, what he’s done, it’s been so positive.”

2. Social media can be a lifeline – but it can also be toxic.

Social media is an invaluable asset right now – it helps us connect with others when we are unable to do so in person, but it can also heighten anxiety.

“I’ve had to switch off Twitter more regularly because there’s just so much speculation on things,” Benjamin says. “It’s just unhelpful. For me, I only really want to know the facts and when something might change.

He says he is being “really careful” not to spend too much time scrolling through social media.

“I don’t want to hear all the speculation of ‘this might happen’. That’s not good for my anxiety.”

3. If you’re struggling during the coronavirus pandemic, you can see a therapist digitally.

Therapy has helped countless people across the world stay on top of their mental health, and Benjamin counts himself among this number.

Therapy is usually done face-to-face, but that doesn’t mean you can’t seek support during lockdown. Many therapists have embraced digital alternatives during the pandemic, with many conducting sessions via Zoom, Skype or over the phone.

Benjamin has had cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the past and he is currently having compassion focussed therapy (CFT), which is “all about trying to develop more self-compassion”.

“At the moment, I’m having my weekly therapy sessions with my therapist online, which is really helpful,” he says.

“I think talking is the key thing to be honest, whether it be through a therapist, someone that’s trained, or even friends or family.

“It always feels like a massive weight off my shoulders every time I come out of a therapy session, and it’s just really nice to have that.”

But therapy can be expensive. If you’re struggling to access support, you can contact services like the Samaritans or similar helplines.

4. Focus on loving your body and banish negative, harmful thoughts.

A cursory glance at social media will show you that plenty of people are worrying about weight gain during this pandemic. But negative thoughts like these can be destructive.

Research tells us that the LGBT+ community is disproportionately affected by eating disorders, so it is essential that we think about our bodies in a compassionate, loving way — especially while in lockdown.

Benjamin has been battling negative feelings about his body by leaving notes with positive affirmations around his apartment.

“In the bathroom mirror, I’ve got a sticky note saying, ‘I love my body,’ because there is a lot of negativity out there,” he says.

He also reminds people that it’s OK to indulge if it makes you feel better. Most people are struggling in these times — if eating chocolate helps, there’s no point in being hard on yourself.

“It’s a difficult time and you’ve just got to do what you need to do to get through,” he says.

5. Stay connected, even when doing so feels difficult.

It is vital that people stay socially engaged during this time. Benjamin recommends people use the communities platform MeetUp to socialise with others in innovative ways, even when they can’t see them face-to-face.

People usually use MeetUp to meet new people and to take part in activities they enjoy. The coronavirus pandemic means groups can’t meet up in person, but they can still have digital gatherings.

Benjamin lives alone in London, so he has committed to taking part in digital gatherings to stay socially active through the pandemic. He takes part in a regular gay men’s meditation evening and a dance group through digital platforms.

“People join in from all over the world which is amazing, and that connectivity to other people is really important in this time,” he says.

This is particularly important for people who live alone. Even just having a video call with a friend can boost your mood.

“It’s really vital that you connect with other people,” he says. “Maybe if you’re not up for a video call or a phone call, even just a text or an email helps. Whatever it is, it’s so important, because we know it makes a difference to our mental health.”

Jonny Benjamin mental health LGBT coronavirus COVID-19
Jonny Benjamin

6. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re having a bad day.

Most people are currently adjusting to what has been called the “new normal” — and this includes working or studying from home, or getting used to unemployment. It’s not an easy adjustment, and there will be bumps along the way.

Benjamin says that it’s important that people be kind to themselves on those bad days. He has made a point of not working his normal nine-to-five hours when he is having a hard time.

“Particularly on days where I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed, I’ll leave my desk early and take the rest of the day off — and that’s not every day, it’s just days where I feel like I’m struggling,” he says.

He knows that this isn’t possible for everyone — it won’t apply to the many people still going out to work, or to those who are working from home as normal. But it is important to go easy on yourself when you’re struggling.

7. Try and create a ‘safe space’ for yourself at home.

Everyone has different living situations. Some people will have a room to themselves, others will have a whole apartment, and some will have an entire house. Heartbreakingly, some people have none of these.

If you do have some space, try to create a sanctuary for yourself where you can go to relax and unwind when you’re struggling, Benjamin says.

“I live alone so it’s easier to give myself space,” he notes. “I use my living room as my meditation space, my yoga space, my exercise space. Try to set up a safe space wherever it is in your house.”

Jonny has turned his living room into a safe, comforting space by filling it with candles and incense — but you can make a space calm and relaxing in whatever way suits you.

8. Practice self-compassion by making a gratitude list.

Feeling grateful isn’t always easy during the coronavirus pandemic, but focusing on the good parts of our lives can lift our spirits when we’re feeling low.

Benjamin recommends that people take a few minutes out of their day to write down a short list of things they are grateful for.

“Every day, write down just a few things, even just three things that you’re grateful for about your day,” he explains.

“I write six things, three things I’m grateful for about the day and three things I liked about myself during that day. It builds up more of a positive, compassionate mindset doing it every single day.”

9. Remember that the coronavirus pandemic will not last forever.

One of the stressful things about the coronavirus pandemic is the uncertainty of it all. Nobody knows when it’s going to end, or if it could have a resurgence at a later point.

But one thing is for sure: the coronavirus pandemic will come to an end at some point, in the same way that all historic pandemics have come to an end.

Benjamin recommends that people focus on the future as much as possible.

“I think sometimes it’s hard to see the end, or a time when we’re not going to be living with social distancing — but it will end, and this will be a distant memory one day,” he says.

“It’s important to keep thinking about the future instead of just the here and now.

“The news is always focusing on right here, right now, but remember that we will come out of this. Other countries are starting to go back to normal and we will go back to normal.”

10. There are support services out there if you’re struggling.

This pandemic has proven a lonely and difficult time for many people. If you’re having a particularly hard time and need urgent help, there is support out there.

“It’s really important that you’re able to talk to someone,” Benjamin says.

“If it’s not a person that you know there’s the Samaritans, there’s the LGBT charity switchboards as well. They’re there if you need to talk, if you need to let something off your chest, but that communication is so important.”

If you are struggling with mental health issues and need support, below are some contact details for support services.

Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), or Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). ​Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.

Beat promotes awareness and understanding of eating disorders, also challenging inaccurate stereotypes and stigma. Find out more at Beat’s website or by calling 0345 634 1414.

If you need LGBT-specific support, you can contact the LGBT Foundation on 0345 3 30 30 30.

If you are looking for specific supports, these organisations offer mental health advice and services, including helplines for LGBT+ people.

1. The Albert Kennedy Trust supports young LGBT+ people between the ages of 16 and 25 years old. They can help with finding specialist LGBT+ mental health services.

2. Gendered Intelligence works with the trans community, especially young people, and those who affect trans lives.

3. Imaan is a support group for LGBT+ Muslims, providing a safe space to share experiences, with factsheets and links to relevant services.

4. LGBT Consortium develops and supports LGBT groups and projects around the country. Use the site’s directory to find local mental health services.

5. London Friend aims to improve the health and mental wellbeing of LGBT people in and around London.

6. Pink Therapy has an online directory of therapists who work with LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning), and gender and sexual-diversity (GSD) clients.

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