ColumnsSmart Health

Dare to Embrace Hope in 2021

Houston’s queer mental-health providers share some strategies.

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Perhaps unlike any other new year in recent memory, 2021 brings substantial hope, anticipation, and expectation. Even as COVID-related deaths in the U.S. near 4,000 per day and many Americans refuse to change their behavior to reduce viral spread, the rollout of the COVID vaccine represents a light in the pandemic’s dark tunnel. Although many will question its long-term safety, the vaccine is clearly our best hope for a return to safe public gatherings.

2021 also brings a significant turning point in Washington as the Biden/Harris administration promises a return to civility and common sense in government. And on the LGBTQ front, the Victory Fund’s support of queer candidates nationwide helped 334 out of 782 known LGBTQ general-election candidates win their races in November. Equitable queer representation at all levels of government may indeed be on the horizon.

But despite the excitement of the new year, many of us are still feeling depleted after getting through 2020. Turmoil and transitions challenge us in powerful ways. They put our coping strategies to the ultimate test, require us to develop new skills for managing stress, and strain our relationships and our mental health.

In honor of the new year, four local LGBTQ mental-health providers shared their reflections on 2020 and their hopes for LGBTQ Houstonians in 2021.

Combat Isolation with Connection

According to Elizabeth Steen, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and LGBT Veterans Care Coordinator at Houston’s VA Medical Center, it’s important to acknowledge how challenging 2020 was for many of us, and the impact it had on our emotional state. “One of the things that stuck out to me about 2020 was the isolation—the painful, divisive events of the year that would lead someone to feel like isolating. It is a natural human instinct to protect ourselves by isolating when we experience pain.”

Dr. Michael Kauth, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine, stresses the critical importance of social and family relationships. “We’re social beings, and we like to be around people. We need our friendships, our work relationships, our chosen families, and our families of origin. It’s very important that we continue to foster those relationships and stay connected [either in person, online, or through] letters and the telephone. We’ve got to stay connected, because that loss of connection just contributes to further isolation and depression.”

Steen agrees that we should guard against our tendency toward isolation. “Notice your urge to back away, and combat it with meaningful connections with people [you trust].”

Set Realistic Goals

Dr. Mauro Garcia-Altieri, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, reflects on the importance of setting goals to create a sense of optimism and renewal. “Keep on moving toward whatever goals you set for yourself. The new year is an opportunity to re-evaluate what those goals should be. Try to find what it is that has meaning and value to you.” 

In times like these, allowing ourselves to feel optimistic can feel dangerous. Kauth encourages hope with a dose of reality. “I think of the new year as a fresh start, and a way to kind of reset the game. It’s not going to be a complete reset this year, but I think 2021 is going to be better. [The promise of the COVID vaccine and the changes in government] are still months away—it will probably be late next year before the vast majority of us see significant changes.”  Kauth believes the next few months will be about “staying vigilant, continuing to do what we’re doing, and not losing hope.”

Live Out Loud

By capitalizing on the energy and empowerment generated by the social-justice movements of 2020, we can find even greater encouragement to live boldly and speak out. As psychotherapist Dr. Wade Maggert, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a psychologist in a private practice,  encourages, “Be bold. Be yourself. It’s time to stop hiding in the shadows. It’s time that people just get used to us being out and queer and whoever we want to be. There are definitely times when you have to think about safety and where you are, so you might have to [sometimes be less visible] in the moment.” However, he believes one of the most important lessons from 2020 is that we must be ourselves. “People just need to get used to it.”

So as 2021 begins to unfold, that unfamiliar feeling you might be experiencing is called hope. Embrace it. We haven’t felt it in a while. How will you attack this new year? If you were to define success, what would it look like?

This article appears in the January 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]
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