As many of us celebrate Pride Month in India and globally, we remember, with pride, our numerous struggles thus far. Yet, we often overlook that our communities, now more than ever, remain at risk of mental health challenges and substance use.

We may have achieved decriminalisation, but discrimination against still exists all around us. We face prejudice and exclusion not just from families and communities, but also bullying at educational institutions and workplaces. The lack of fundamental rights such as marriage, adoption, and inheritance make our lives only half realised, leaving our mental health deeply vulnerable.

Combined with cultural and religious conservatism and the fear of violence, the result is a deep “othering” of queer lives. In short, we experience lifelong dissonance, disconnectedness, and marginalisation. It is inevitable then that our mental health suffers.

This ongoing “othering” intensifies feelings of loneliness, leading many to seek escape from our lived realities and find thrills within the limitations of our lives. With the rise of social media and diminishing of traditional queer communities further exacerbates this sense of disconnectedness. While people may be out and proud, they often find themselves without companionship, surrounded by images of contrived queer happiness everywhere.

The queer is always on the margins and made to feel inadequate sometimes even within their communities. Take social media, which can be empowering, and many queer individuals turn to it to find a sense of community. It helps overcome distance, barriers and expands the potential of online networks. Social media creates a safe space for expression, connecting with others, and exploring our identities. The ability to share personal stories, experiences, and perspectives aids in building a sense of belonging and empowerment.

At the same time, social media is also a platform where misrepresentation and stereotypes thrive, often distorting the understanding of queer identity. Online hate, abuse, and ridicule exist without any consequences and this affects us deeply.

Within the community, social media often establishes unrealistic standards and parameters to belong. Consider this: We are exposed to carefully curated and idealised portrayals of queer lives, bodies, and relationships. What if most people can’t achieve them? This can contribute to body image issues, low self-esteem, and feelings of inadequacy. We are no strangers to self-hate which negatively impacts our mental well-being. When combined with online bullying and harassment, it deeply affects our mental health and well-being. Mental health concerns include suicidal ideation, self-harm, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is no surprise that queer individuals often seek escape and thrills through substance use. The use of marijuana, hashish, and alcohol is common, as well as drugs like MDMA and speed. But why have these chemicals become so prevalent? They are affordable, accessible, and unregulated. Once someone starts using them, these drugs quickly become addictive. Upon use, they rapidly release dopamine, leading to a sudden surge of euphoria and increased energy in an otherwise exhausted and overwhelmed individual. Psychologically, they generate feelings of confidence, power, and invulnerability, and can also heighten sexual desire. These substances are not just distractions, but coping mechanisms to escape the challenges that surround us.

We don’t talk enough about substance use within the queer community. It is deeply stigmatised, pushing those struggling with it further away from us. Consequently, subcultures emerge where people find comfort and reinforcement in using these substances together. The long-term impacts of drug use are well-known, ranging from mental health issues and psychosis to severe health problems that can completely dismantle the independent lives we have fought so hard to create.

This Pride Month, let’s shift our focus to this critical struggle. We need a community-based strategy to address mental health and substance use. Creating awareness and reaching out to one another is essential in tackling this issue. What we need are community networks where individuals can find comfort, build friendships, and receive long-term support to address mental health challenges and substance use. Destigmatising both mental health challenges and substance use is crucial. Until we do so within our community, those in need will be hesitant to seek help, fearing stigma, ridicule and rejection.

Where can we start? Through our networks and social media, we must start openly discussing the mental health challenges faced by queer individuals and actively address substance use. Community-based programs led and run by queer individuals are crucial as they create a safe environment to seek help. LGBTQIA++ stressors are unique and require specific attention led by fellow community members. We must also build awareness and skills for self-care practices and activities that promote self-acceptance and compassion.

In the mainstream, we need mental health professionals who are sensitive to queer experiences, capable of conducting both in-person and online programs to address issues of othering, loneliness, and substance use. Additionally, we must specifically push to prioritise queer mental health and overall well-being in public discussions and policy. Without doing so, our pride in our communities remains incomplete.

This Pride Month, lets embark on a journey to reduce the toxic mixture of poor mental health, substance use, and the constant othering we experience. Our truth is that we are at risk, often grappling with our well-being, and we have no one but each other. So, let’s take pride in our resilience, improve our mental health, strengthen our community and reach out and ask each other how are we doing?

Chapal Mehra is Director at The Rahaat Project and a Public Health specialist.