India’s diverse queer community has long battled for acceptance – legally, socially and politically. This constant battle, along with ingrained stigma, discrimination and violence, has negatively affected the mental health of queer folk, especially the youth. Young queer folks land up in oppressive and heteronormative educational institutions that further affect their mental health and wellbeing.
Queer mental health is ignored and stigmatised globally, but more so in South Asia. Educational institutions lack queer-affirmative representation, support, and policies. As queer folks often grow up with no encouraging examples and internalised stigma, there is a complete absence of conversations on their identity, gender and right to love, which aggravates their unique life stressors and further isolates them from their peers and society.
Educational institutions remain the safest place to start spreading awareness and building supportive and creative environments for these communities. But despite decriminalisation, Indian educational institutions largely maintain a stoic silence on queer identity and are often openly queerphobic.
Educational institutions have the responsibility to shape young minds but is real learning possible without empathy and questioning ingrained prejudices? Should these institutions not be teaching students how to love themselves and each other and also to practise empathy and tolerance?
Here lies an opportunity for transformative social change. Through tailored curricula, advocacy and the fostering of safe spaces, educational institutions can create sustainable change on queer mental health. They can, through targeted initiatives, sculpt a future where acceptance is not a privilege but an inalienable right for every individual, regardless of identity or orientation.
At the heart of the challenges to queer mental health is a lack of inclusivity, discrimination, bullying and misrepresentation. Sensitive, accurate portrayals and narratives of queer youth are hard to come by in India, especially in educational institutions. Even pop culture, though undergoing a shift, is still fraught with narratives that perpetuate stereotypes.
A starting point can be integrating queer topics into the academic framework that can transform understanding, increase acceptance and dismantle biases. Sexuality and mental health education in schools and colleges can be a powerful tool for change. Comprehensive sexuality education, inclusive of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities, eventually paves the way for an informed and inclusive society. This is far from easy considering the growing conservatism in education.
At the very least, creating inclusive environments through policies that explicitly ban discrimination and harassment are necessary for queer students to live without dominant stressors and to help them feel secure, learn and possibly thrive.
Another area of institutional progress could be support groups within schools, colleges and universities. These can serve as lifelines for those navigating the complex path of identity. They nurture a sense of belonging and contribute significantly to a positive and empowering educational journey. Institutions need not only to provide accessible and sensitive informational programmes but also mental health support to these students.
Queer-friendly mental health services must acknowledge and address the deep structural and systemic discrimination and the intersectional experiences of these communities, such as unique life stressors, gender dysphoria, minority stress and ingrained discrimination. Creating safe spaces and support groups tailored to their needs creates a sense of community and validation that contributes significantly to mental wellbeing. Family sensitisation workshops can also be of immense value. These can bridge the understanding gap between queer youth and their families, creating a more open and safer space in their homes.
There are inspiring stories in India representing a paradigm shift that is necessary in the educational landscape. In truth, these educational institutions need to build bridges with queer organisations to sensitise staff but also create safe spaces in universities. The tangible impact of queer-friendly policies is evident and they need to consider how this can be brought about.
There are numerous examples of such successful initiatives in some institutes. At The Raahat Project, an initiative has been to provide free online resources to address the unique mental health challenges for queer youth in India. The authors are associated with The Rahaat Project.
Even with all these efforts, time-honoured norms and institutional resistance remain barriers. In the rural education landscape, there are added layers of challenges that are only just becoming visible. Individuals with identities shaped by the intersections of caste, gender, location, as well as economic means have unique experiences and impediments to overcome.
Technology has a vast potential to bridge gaps in education, from rural to urban, across caste and gender identities, providing access to information and support. Virtual communities can offer solace and connection for queer youth in areas where physical support may not be possible.
The fight for equality but also mental health rages on silently within the walls of Indian educational institutions. In this journey, the mental health of queer youth stands as a critical focal point and educational institutions can be at the forefront of this transformation, responsible for ensuring that the message of acceptance and understanding resonates throughout schools and colleges. This paves the way for a future that is not just inclusive but also deeply empathetic.
Chapal Mehra is Director at The Rahaat Project and a public health specialist.
Subhasis Chakraborty is a writer, independent researcher and public policy professional associated with The Raahat Project.