A project supporting the LGBT+ community with mental health problems is bringing people together through workshops and online communal chats.
Michael Stephens and Maylis Djikalou are the brains behind We Create Space, the idea came to them when they were working on a separate initiative for a travel company, but when the pandemic hit they were forced to rethink their plans.
Djikalou, 29, told Metro.co.uk the project was launched in the fear LGBT+ people were ‘facing isolation again’ because the virus were forcing them to return home to families who did not accept their sexuality.
‘Some of them were going back to their families, an environment which growing up was probably the place where a lot of initial traumas were set in stone,’ she said.
Maylis, who went back to her home in Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa during the pandemic after emigrating from the country when she was nine years-old.
‘Maybe you’ve run away to find your true self outside of that environment – whatever you needed to do to survive. But you’d left that story there and going back means you have to face certain things,’ she explained.
‘We had other people leaving their jobs or being faced with redundancy…a lot of these people were individuals who had done everything in their life so far to strive and be at the top.’
Djikalou has been through her own troubles, working in the fashion industry in her early 20s she became addicted to drugs after turning to them to relieve the stress she was under.
Spending time in prison she eventually turned her life around and is now supporting others with their own mental health issues.
‘All we were hearing on the news was that there was going to be a mental health crisis but there were so many conversations that weren’t happening,’ she said.
‘The support on offer was always end of the line – if you were suicidal or an addict or another extreme behaviour, you could get some help. But what about the people in the middle? That grey area of individuals who seem ok but clearly need support. We build these masks that over time get very difficult to shed.
‘We started to put these personal stories out there and say how about we address these issues that we are all facing as a community and unpick them in a way that is safe.
‘We wanted individuals to start seeing their strengths and using this isolation period to give themselves the time to ask some profound questions that might potentially change the course of their lives.’
We Create Space has been working with Rico Jacob Chance, director of Transactual UK.
The motivational speaker faced homophobia and transphobia when he worked in the financial sector in London.
The 27-year-old said: ‘I had people laughing at me, swearing at me throughout the working day,’ he said. ‘I ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder – my hands were shaking whilst I was working.
‘I put up with it for two months because I didn’t want to lose my career but one day I went home, had a nap, and woke up with PTSD.
‘No one could really touch me for about an eight month period because my anxiety was that bad. I had to relearn how to read and write because you can’t really focus on anything when your anxiety levels are so high. I went from working in finance to being a bar tender.
‘It shows how someone in a professional setting can lose their entire livelihood just due to homophobia. You almost have to choose between your identity and your career.’
Rio had therapy and practised meditation to help him on the road to recovery, similar techniques are advised through the We Create Space.
The project offers free advice to trans and non-binary people by suggesting breathing techniques, how to control negative thoughts and yoga exercises as well as putting them in touch with others who are struggling with their mental health.
‘It’s ok to feel down, it’s ok to feel depressed as long as you process those things healthily,’ Rico assured.
‘Unfortunately, depression and anxiety is rife within the trans community. We’ve seen some domestic abuse victims who can’t access women’s shelters because they are trans.
‘A lot of trans people are made homeless because their landlord refuses to rent to them.
‘In secondary education, a lot of trans people experience prejudice from their colleagues and they end up dropping out. So if you look at it from a socio-economic point of view, you’re cutting people’s potential income prospects at a very very young age.’
One of the first people to benefit from the workshops was 29-year-old David Kim from east London who is now leading one himself.
‘There’s a lot of intangible, invisible stuff that people are going through’, he said. ‘We’re at a point now where gay marriage and a lot of the stigma in the most obvious sense has disappeared.
‘But we still have troubles and they are often not so easy to see and can be hard to talk about or easily trivialised.
‘To have a specific space like this where you are able to share parallels with other people’s journeys is invaluable.
‘The best way to combat trauma is to have someone acknowledge what you are going through, to know that you are not alone.’
Another person who benefitted from We Create Space is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant Yassine Senghor.
The 35-year-old found most LGBT+ services inaccessible through lockdown, but received support from the project.
‘Right now I am going through this massive process of being clear about who I am, what I want to achieve and what I stand for,’ she said.
‘I think being a queer person is one of the most joyous things in the world but there is also a lot of hardship too.
‘This has allowed me to have honest conversations with a group who understand some elements of that. My life has been a lot more balanced having found this space.’
We Create Space’s mission is ‘To build a platform and community that serves to educate, support and inspire LGBTQ+ individuals to 'Create Space' in their own lives.’
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