Toronto queer youth find comfort in Studio community

·5 min read

The Studio is getting far fewer no-shows for its therapy sessions for youth since the pandemic forced appointments online, while its virtual connections have “changed everything” for some young people struggling with issues at home and school.

Ren is one beneficiary of the new setup. Since coming out as trans and following a therapist’s referral last year, he had been dropping in for programs almost every day until life got busy recently. That’s despite living an hour away from the site just north of Yonge and Eglinton.

“I was really shy at first. I didn't turn on my camera or unmute myself, but I did talk in the chat and everyone was so kind and welcoming,” 14-year-old Ren said during a recent video interview with another teenage Studio participant and a youth worker. “And the second time around, I did turn on my camera and I felt like everyone appreciated that. I felt appreciated.”

Ren, who is recovering from an eating disorder, ended up facilitating a workshop for peers he created with one of the Youth Wellness Hubs of Ontario therapists, who works in The Studio, about the dangers of diet culture.

“I let people know about a bunch of misinformation and how stuff can help you that people might think is bad, but it's really not,” he said. “Once I gave The Studio a shot, I feel like it changed everything.”

The pandemic has been an isolating experience for many people, but that distance from peers has hit especially hard for younger people used to active social lives and the validation they can provide.

Providers say those who can navigate the digital migration have gained more convenient support, but that for every case like Ren’s, there are previously regular attendees unable to connect for one reason or another.

“We definitely have youth who used to come in who we still try to engage with online. We’ll say, ‘Do you want to come hang out on a Zoom call?’ and they’ll be like, ‘Not really.' Or they’ll try it once or twice, and they’re like, ‘This is not really my thing,’” said Duncan Waugh, a youth worker at The Studio, which is run by Lumenus Community Services.

With the virtual programming illustrating unmet needs, Waugh said they’d like to find a way to keep a virtual version even when a loosening of public health measures means The Studio’s doors can open again.

“It sounds really awesome, and we’d love to figure it out; we haven’t done so yet,” he said.

Janis Macdonald, a nurse practitioner at the site, says that a client who was recently referred to her on the clinical side of its operations had been stuck in their room for much of the pandemic.

“It really struck me that we’re only accessing the young people who know how to access us, or who can ask for help,” she said. “Sometimes youth can’t talk openly and honestly in a small apartment.”

Still, she says her no-show rate has gone down from a typical range of 20 to 30 per cent to perhaps less than five per cent.

“I feel like I'm much more accessible to them because they don't have to ride transit to get in or book an appointment. They can just answer the phone and we have a connection,” she said.

Macdonald said more cases of eating disorders have emerged since the pandemic, likely due to caregivers being in closer proximity.

“I do have to think that if you send your kid to school with a lunch, they can throw it out,” Macdonald said. “If you're sitting down and trying to have a sandwich with them, or a soup or a salad, and they’re not eating it, it becomes more apparent.”

The Studio’s drop-in site is run by staff who all identify as queer and has a specific focus on LGBTQ+ youth on Fridays, but Waugh said they’ve found even the Monday-to-Thursday programming for all youth heavily populated by members of that community since the pandemic.

Another of The Studio’s attendees, 16-year-old Bella, said the virtual space helped alleviate some pressure in her relationship with her mother, who encouraged her to sign up for a drug education program, and has also helped her expand her friendship circles.

“In the summer of 2020, I was just looking for places to make new friends and stuff because I was feeling pretty, like, lonely and isolated and very bad about myself, too,” said Bella, who uses she and they pronouns.

“Also, I was like questioning my gender and sexuality and stuff, so I was kind of confused about that, so I looked up different places that I could go,” they said, noting recent struggles with self-harm and substance use.

“I didn't realize how much of an extrovert I was until COVID happened, because I really value human connection and I always took that for granted before,” she said. “So COVID did send me into a lot of dark places because I’d feel pretty alone, (and) even though I have made a bunch of friends and stuff and I do have them, sometimes I kind of forget that they care about me.”

Bella said she struggles to retain focus for online school, but finds value in logging on to Studio sessions two to three times a week.

“It helps me have a place where I can be open and talk to people and make new friends that are similar to me,” they said.

Bella also takes part in a group therapy session using Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, which teaches practical skills and strategies to alter problematic behaviour.

They’d do role plays with one acting the parent and the other a youth trying to negotiate to go out to a party, or a peer pressure scenario, Bella explains.

“It's better than someone saying, ‘Just say no.’ It's better having an interactive, live thing that’s low stakes because it's not actually happening,” they said.

“It made me realize that I don't have to apologize for not being able to do something that I don't need to do, and that those people don't really deserve my time and energy because they don't care about me.”

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer