Fourteen participants shared with us the slices of their lives during the lockdown. Of the 14 participants, 8 were male, 5 were female, and 1 identified themselves as a non-binary transgender. Six of the 14 identified themselves as LGBT adults. Four were students, 5 worked in private/public sectors (hereafter “service”), and 5 engaged in business/entrepreneurship. The thematic analysis of the narratives of these 14 participants revealed four broad themes. Not all participants’ narratives highlighted all the themes; however, each participant’s narrative was reflected in at least one theme.
Theme 1: Emotional responses to “distance from the real world”.
All 14 participants expressed their unique concerns about the lockdown situation. Words such as “frustrated,” “stressed,” “angry,” and “suffocated,” were frequently used to describe their emotions. Although the intensity of the negative impact of the lockdown varied across participants, most participants (9/10) shared how the lockdown disrupted their lives causing frustration and agitation. For instance, Ashok (male, heterosexual, service, 27 years old) shared,
Initially it was chill. I thought things would ease out pretty fast. But it now looks like an exceptionally long pause. Each and every day I feel there is an increase of frustration… Hmm… let me put it as…it is like a feeling of anxiety…about the future. We do not know if things would be the same. Especially, (I) am concerned about my work. My work got stuck. Upar se (on top of that), you hear about the increasing number of cases in your own neighborhood. All these accumulate and makes you lose your patience. I have not been able to put my focus on work (since he was working from home). And for me, productivity takes very long to revive once it goes down.
Similar responses of frustration were shared by several students who had mostly enjoyed an outdoorsy life, be it spending time on their college campuses or with friends outside. However, a few shared a different reason for their anxiety: Living in a place with a high number of Covid-19 cases. Rajini’s (female, heterosexual, homemaker, 39 years old) narrative is an example:
We are in a containment (severe movement restriction) zone, and since the last 12 days none of us have stepped out of the house. And you know what the situation is in Bombay (Mumbai) right now! It is pretty stressful […] I have personally kept myself off from news, but there is always social media to give that to you. If you ask me now, I really do not know what the number of cases is, or even what is happening around the neighborhood. I just am desperately waiting for the day when we all will be safe.
While several respondents shared the fear they felt currently due to a high number of Covid-19 cases in their areas, two respondents, Tulika (female, belonged to LGBT group, service, 23 years old) and Salma (transgender (non-binary), belonged to LGBT group, service, 43 years old) shared how this “worse” time had forced them to revisit their past trauma. Tulika, who had gone through a break-up one year earlier and was recovering with the help of therapy elaborated,
[…] and then sometime in my head it is like a relapse… earlier I would be going out, meeting friends and keep myself distracted, but now since you do not have that opportunity, it just keeps coming back […] I have been a workaholic and that’s another thing that in therapy we are trying to work on, but given the ample amount of free time you have; it just keeps coming back to you.
Another instance of past trauma being triggered was in the case of Salma (they/their/them), who had always managed situations of discrimination (against their transgender identity) calmly but recently lost their temper during such an event.
The policewoman stopped us (them and their partner), and asked me “what do you think you are,” […] I have always tried to be calm in such situations, but this time, I just lost all my calmness. It was a mix of so many things, my frustration at work during the crisis, my mother falling ill just a week before the incident, all these acted together.
Their stories revealed that the stress and anxiety developed during the lockdown had revived old memories of trauma. Thus, in response, Tulika chose to go through emergency sessions with her therapist, while Salma failed to stay calm and burst out when faced with gender-based discrimination.
While Tulika and Salma revisited trauma, Anurag (male, belonged to LGBT group, businessman, 37 years old) who moved to his parental home during the lockdown felt distant from his “real” world. He shared,
After I moved out of Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh) around 17 years ago, this is the longest time I am spending with them (his parents). They are old and in their 70s, and need me during this time, so I came here to live with them. I came here around the 23rdMarch, maybe the 24th, just before the lockdown. Honestly, I am happy to be here for them, but you know, sometimes it feels like you are so far away from your real world. It took me quite some time to confront my own sexuality. And the fact that I stayed away from my parents, who by the way still do not understand the meaning of “gay,” had helped me a lot in coming to terms with myself (sexuality). […] I miss meeting people. The longer I am here, the more I feel that I am losing the chance to meet my life partner. I know it may sound silly and selfish to you, but for me at this age, losing (even) one single chance of meeting someone is a big thing.
Anurag’s feeling of distance from his “real” world highlighted how uncomfortable he was at his old home with his parents. He shared how things around his parents’ house reminded him of how uneasy he felt while growing up as a gay man. Anurag was conflicted by a dilemma: While the lockdown brought him closer to his parents at a time of their need, it also placed on him an additional psychological burden.
The suffocation potentially felt by LGBT adults forced due to the lockdown to stay with others to whom they were not out was evident in this quote shared via the online survey:
Belonging to sexual or gender minorities in India and spending time with family when you are not open, was already like a cage, with family having lot of expectations and along with societal pressures and humiliations. Closing in (being confined to) a non-accepting society and with high-in-expectation family members is destroying my mental health in COVID-19 times. I want to go away from this Society and breathe in fresh air once again where I will not be judged for how I was born.
While a majority of the participants (9/14) shared mostly about their negative states of mind, a few took a moment to share the positive impact of the lockdown on their lives. For instance, Rumi (female, heterosexual, businessperson, 33 years old) described how she saw the lockdown as an opportunity to introspect about her own life.
Not frustrated with it, but I am seeing this as an opportunity that, you know, I have been married for 8 years and there has been so many ups and downs. My life was going without any clarity, but now I am taking this as an opportunity to see what I could do. Life was fast and now it is like I got a break. I do not think of it as a frustration, but it is an opportunity. Since long I was looking for a time where I could sit and do nothing, especially taking a break from my business.
The narrative of Ashish (male, belonged to LGBT group, service, 23 years old, HIV positive) highlighted his equanimity during the crisis. He shared that he did not have any trouble during the lockdown, mostly because he was an introvert who had always loved spending time indoors. However, he mentioned that he and his mother (whom he was living with) had been adhering to the usual precautions to avoid the virus. He said that he had always been protective about his health, as was his mother.
Theme 2: Impact of the lockdown/Covid-19 on lifestyle.
Almost all participants (11/14) described how their daily routines had changed because of the lockdown. While many of them were trying to keep themselves healthy by striving to live a “normal” life, a few mentioned about drastic changes in lifestyle, especially in their eating and sleep patterns. For instance, Tulika shared how she lost motivation to stick to a routine during the lockdown.
I usually am a morning person. But ever since this lockdown, my schedule has drastically changed. I have not been waking up early. I am going to sleep around 5 in the morning and continue sleeping till late […] maybe it is because there is no structure anymore. It is more like what do you look forward to. Earlier I used to wake up, looking forward to something. Maybe to go to work and meet people or just to go out. But now I really do not have a point.
Almost 50% of the narratives suggested such changes in sleep cycles. On the other hand, Subhash (male, belonged to LGBT group, service, 24 years old) shared about changes in food habits while also highlighting his mild concerns related to the disruption in his sexual life,
I have not been able to keep myself hydrated properly, earlier I had a schedule for that too, and now I feel it is really messed. (He did not have access to a water purifier at home and relied on purchasing mineral water, which was difficult during the lockdown.) Also, the food, now it is like there is no strict schedule … working out has stopped as well. I guess these are the things that majorly got influenced. Also, sex. Earlier I used to meet people, not very active sexually I would say but 3–4 times a month, but yeah once a while. But now, there is this longer break. […] it just made me hornier that I had been in the normal times. But there is no permanent mental impact honestly. I mean you can watch porn and then masturbate, that is it. But yeah, there is this constant yearning is there in the back of the mind, like, as soon as the lockdown is over, I would start dating again, and so on.
Rumi however understood this “bad time” as an opportunity to work on herself, a point shared by three other participants. She believed that she could explore a completely different side of hers because of this long break from her busy work. She narrated,
I have been experimenting with my life these days. I wake up early and do yoga and then meditation, and then helped my mother with some household chores. Currently, I think I feel physically very light, maybe because of exercise. The free time has helped me a lot to explore these, which otherwise was not really possible given the busy life that I had.
Theme 3: Coping with challenges.
Each participant shared unique stories of coping with the crisis. While most adapted themselves to the “smaller world,” a few struggled with it and found alternate ways to negotiate their challenges. A few other participants were positive about the crisis, spending time relaxing or pursuing long-held passions. For instance, Rumi described her introspective exploration and enhanced ability to connect with the society through solitude and meditation.
[…] then I was doing nothing and looking at trees and people around… and then… cooking has been one thing that I am enjoying these days… I have also been listening to Sadhguru which I have never done before…in fact I have hated all these… but now…maybe I have found him very interesting […] I have also engaged in meditation, and book reading… so I am happy (about this).
On the other hand, Tulika kept her mind distracted from the “outside chaos” by immersing herself in social media. For instance, Tulika shared,
The number of hours I am awake, I am using social media. Even if I am going to sleep, I will mindlessly keep scrolling until I fall asleep. Because these are the places currently where you see people. Otherwise it is quite just you. I think it is a good place to connect. It keeps me engaged.
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Tulika’s narrative indicates that the online activities have connected her with the outside world, which created an avenue for her to share her vulnerabilities with others through online interactions (messaging and commenting on posts). Notably, more than 50% of the participants reported perceiving the Internet as a way to reduce stress and anxiety during the lockdown. In fact, most of them referred the Internet as the easiest way to keep them distracted from thinking (or overthinking).
A few of the participants who shared their frustration about disruption in their sex lives, reported finding solace in watching pornography and masturbating. Sujoy (male, belonged to LGBT group, student, 22 years) quoted,
I think it is the only thing you could right now. I mean I see people online in Grindr (a dating app for LGBT adults), and surprisingly people are still looking for sex. And very honestly, I completely understand this desperateness. Most of them, and that includes me, were having our fun days. And all of a sudden this happens. Initially, even I had the thought, ghar ke paas to jake hookup kar sakte hain (it should be okay to have a hookup close to my place). But I realized immediately that it is not wise enough to meet people during this time, especially when you know that it (Covid-19) could also not show any symptoms[…] What I do right now is watch porn and jerk off.
While Sujoy showed high self-control and overcame his behavioral impulse of going out to have sex, his initial inclination to go out of his home for sex highlights the repercussions of forced abstinence due to the lockdown. Similarly, a participant (male, heterosexual, student, 18–25 years old) answering the online quantitative survey shared via the open-ended question:
My sexual desires are making me feel more anxious to masturbate, as a single (man), very often during this lockdown period.
Theme 4: New perspectives on self, life, and society.
Ten of the 14 participants believed that their lives were no longer the same. They believed that they had changed significantly in terms of how they viewed their selves and society in general. For instance, Tulika said,
Earlier I used to be worried about very little things, and now it has changed drastically, maybe after spending so much time with myself. I am clearer about my life. I feel I got clarity and I see a huge change in myself. I feel spending time with myself has been the best thing.
Similar observation was made by Rumi, who pointed out that,
[…] my mental state is also is very different than before. Earlier I used to get irritated, worried, angry frequently, but now I feel that I am quite easy, surprisingly, even with my husband. We used to fight (giggles) but now I see that I have been very much calm even with him. It is more because of a lot of things, like about spending time with myself.
The universal vulnerability, extended time to reflect on their lives, and sharing their vulnerabilities with others had increased the participants’ level of compassion and social empathy, which further strengthened their relationships with their loved ones. This was reflected in what Tulika shared,
What I have learnt from this entire situation is that you do not take things for granted anymore, even for like interacting with people. I connected with a lot of friends lately, made a couple of new friends as well, and I feel the conversations are no longer superficial but they seem very real, even though we are not in the same physical space but I feel closer to the people more than when we were closer physically […]People have become more vulnerable and have started sharing. Everyone is going through some upheaval right now with this feeling and everyone is trying to connect with others. We are in our mid 20s and everyone is going through this time in pretty much (a) similar way, a huge disruption in our lives I would say. So, we become more vulnerable, now I guess these feelings of vulnerability comes out, when you are sharing. And especially when you know that the other person is going through the same as well, and it actually also allows you to connect to the society at large…to a wide range of people.
Similarly, Rajan (male, heterosexual, student, 30 years old) reflected,
Thinking of my parents, who are in their 60s, and knowing about their vulnerability makes me think more and more my own life. Also, you know that you are in a privileged position to understand lockdown and follow self-quarantine measures. But there are people (who are) like my parents, in their 60s, (but unlike his privileged parents) who cannot afford to sit inside their homes for like 40 days. I have started to think more and more about them, especially knowing that people are dying because of hunger and poverty during this crucial time. While we all are affected by this virus, we all are suffering differently.
While the narratives of Tulika and Rajan highlighted how their vulnerabilities connected them to the society at large, Rumi shared how the situation (and thus the vulnerability) strengthened her relationship with her husband of eight years. She narrated,
I think that I am looking forward to it (reuniting with her husband who was stuck in a different city due to the lockdown) and I have a very strong feeling that it would be very different than before, because I am in a completely different situation now. Also, because I was not clear about my life, I would say we did not have a great relationship. I mean not “not great” but we used to fight a lot. But now I feel little concerned and am little worried about him given the whole situation. And then I realized what is important, that the person is important. I also realized where I was wrong and about my frustration. Now I can say I am looking forward to a much better relationship.
Rumi considered the lockdown situation as an opportunity to reflect upon her own life, tried to connect with people around her, spent longer time in spiritual, motivational, and meditational activities—all of which had helped her find meaning in her life and optimism about her marriage.
Using quantitative data from 282 Indian adults and qualitative narratives of 14 adults, our mixed methods study found that even though the Covid-19 crisis indiscriminately affected everyone, its psychological effects were disproportionate among diverse social groups in India. Our quantitative and qualitative findings both suggest that LGBT adults, compared to the heterosexuals, are at a higher risk of developing anxiety, depressive symptoms, and using pornography during the lockdown. Moreover, higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms were associated with greater disruption in sleep and food cycles. Lastly, our findings unpacked how sharing vulnerability with loved ones, and frequently talking to family members, strengthened social relationships and social empathy among Indian adults during the Covid-19 lockdown.
The higher risk of anxiety in our survey among the LGBT adults than heterosexuals was corroborated by our qualitative findings. Several reasons might explain this. First, previous research suggests that the LGBT community have a higher prevalence of anxiety and depressive symptoms compared to heterosexuals , independent of any crisis. This could be explained using the Meyer’s Minority Stress model  During the lockdown, their minority stress (such as sexual orientation-based discrimination and internalized homonegativity) could interact with the lockdown-related stress, thereby increasing their anxiety much more than that experienced by heterosexuals. Second, the lockdown had likely paused their social as well as sexual lives (which connected them with their own community) which likely restricted their access to a safe space, and limited the social support they received from the community . Subhash and Sujoy’s narratives are good examples that show how abstinence from active sex life could make the LGBT adults more anxious during the lockdown. While Sujoy’s example reflects the high demand of self-control during the Covid-19 lockdown , research suggests that the application of self-control is effortful and aversive . Therefore, individuals with low self-control could be at a higher risk of succumbing to their behavioral impulses during the pandemic.
This also explains our qualitative finding which suggests a higher likelihood of compulsive consumption of pornography and greater frequency of masturbation among LGBT adults (and people in same-sex relationships) during the lockdown compared to heterosexuals (and people in opposite-sex relationships). This disruption in sexual life could explain our quantitative finding which suggested greater anxiety among heterosexuals who were in (opposite-sex) relationships. The lockdown could have resulted in restrictions in physical interactions and romantic dates with their partners, and reduced the social support received, thus increasing their anxiety. However, the higher consumption of pornography and frequency of masturbation might suggest a healthy sexuality. Notably, these practices may enable individuals to stay away from seeking physical intimacy outside the home during the lockdown which could contribute towards curbing the spread of Covid-19 .
Lastly, during the lockdown, it is likely that most adults would move closer to their families for support and to avoid loneliness , especially in a family-centric country such as India. However, for many LGBT adults moving in with their parents, to whom they were not out or who disapproved of their sexuality, could be challenging, increasing their risk of experiencing hostility during the lockdown. Previous studies have shown that parental support and familial environment play crucial roles in self-acceptance among LGBT adults [51, 52]. The lack of such familial and/or parental support could hinder self-acceptance among LGBT adults, see for instance, Anurag’s narrative of how he could accept his sexuality only after he moved out of his parental home. Moreover, moving away from his “safe space” to a place which brought memories of discomfort likely increased his anxiety. This could be true for several of the LGBT adults who had gone through interpersonal and familial conflict earlier.
Our quantitative findings also found that individuals at greater, versus lower, risk of the complications of Covid-19 showed higher levels of anxiety. A previous study suggested that patients with existing risk factors to Covid-19 such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) were more also more likely have worse health outcomes if infected . Irrespective of worse health outcomes, belonging to a group with increased risk of Covid-19 complications, given that Covid-19 has no known cure and unpredictably causes mortality, could potentially induce additional stress and anxiety. This corroborates findings from previous studies suggesting a higher prevalence of stress among front-line health workers , elderly persons , and people living with HIV [55, 56] during the global public health crisis. However, our qualitative findings are in contrast to this finding. Ashish (who was living with HIV) showed no added concern (or anxiety) due to the lockdown. One explanation for this could be that Ashish was among those who adopt optimism and, in combination with constant precaution, show stronger resilience to adverse situations. Findings from a previous study found that people living with HIV could develop resilience despite their physical and psychological challenges . In fact, our study found that optimism and resilience coping were negatively related to anxiety and depressive symptoms. Moreover, Ashish enjoyed spending time indoors, which likely reduced any frustration related to not being able to enjoy regular life, in addition to the lower likelihood of contracting Covid-19.
We did not find quantitative evidence supporting the hypothesis that living in a state with a higher count of Covid-19 cases predicted greater anxiety and depressive in Indian adults. This is in contrast to previous research in Australia which found that respondents living in areas with a high number of influenza cases were at much greater risk of stress than those living in uninfected areas . However, our qualitative results supported our hypothesis. The lack of evidence in our quantitative findings could be because of the operationalization of the concept of area. Our study operationalized area-level risk at the state level. It is possible that anxiety was higher among people living in a neighborhood (and not the state) with higher number of Covid-19 cases. Also, in addition to just the count of Covid-19 in the neighborhood (or state) including the infection fatality rate in the operationalization could have given a reliable estimate of the influence of place.
Our quantitative findings suggest that a past history of depression or loneliness could increase anxiety and depressive symptoms during the lockdown. Our qualitative findings corroborate this. Tulika and Salma’s narratives suggest that stress during lockdown could revive past trauma. Previous study findings also support this interpretation . Our qualitative and quantitative findings also suggested that increased depressive symptoms in this group could also increase their Internet consumption leading to Internet addiction during the lockdown. Depressed individuals could use the Internet as way to cope with their negative psychological state during the lockdown, which risks addiction during a restrictive state such as a lockdown and could affect their quality of life even after the lockdown.
Anxiety and depressive symptoms during lockdown were found to predict disruptions in sleep and food schedules, corroborating findings from a previous study . Qualitative data found that an increase in anxiety and a lack of motivation to lead a routine life increased the risk of an unbalanced sleep cycle, which also impacted food consumption and its timings. Additionally, the inaccessibility to quality food due to the restrictions in physical mobility during the lockdown could affect the balanced diet among Indian adults. Beyond any immediate health effects which could further worsen mental health, such prolonged changes in timing and consumption of food could impact their overall food eating patterns even after the lockdown, resulting in poorer physical and mental health in the longer term as well.
Our quantitative findings suggest that sharing about stress with loved ones and an increase in frequency of interacting with family members likely strengthened social bonds and also increased social empathy among Indian adults. Our qualitative findings elucidate this. Tulika’s narrative highlighted that the universal vulnerability due to the global pandemic and her sharing about it with others in a similar situation improved her connectedness with the people thereby strengthening her social relationships. Similarly, interacting and knowing the vulnerability of Rajan’s parents (more vulnerable) made him more empathetic, and increase his connection with the society at large. This fits with the findings from a previous study that highlighted this argument—sharing and expressing emotions (and vulnerabilities) could make people more empathetic . Such increased social empathy could also be a positive response to the pandemic (and lockdown). For instance, a recent study from the West found that higher empathy towards the more vulnerable could induce motivation to maintain and promote social distancing .
Limitations and strengths
There are several limitations of this study that need to be noted while interpreting the results.
We used convenience sampling in our study that limits the generalizability of the findings. Generalizability is also limited due to our use of an English language questionnaire, a small sample size, and choosing the online mode of administering it. However, despite the modest sample size and the sampling design, we were able to show several interesting findings with statistical confidence. We were also constrained in our ability to seek non-English speakers and administer the questionnaires using hard copies due the lockdown situation. Notably, our use of a qualitative strand strengthened the interpretation of the quantitative findings by allowing us to unpack several complex processes. Furthermore, we speculate that the associations under study are stronger among those sub-groups who have a limited access to the Internet that plays a crucial role in ensuring social connectedness during the lockdown.
We used psychological scales to measure anxiety, depressive symptoms, Internet addiction, and compulsive consumption of pornography, instead of clinical interviews which would have yielded medical diagnoses. However, our use of widely cited, reliable scales are informative and could indicate symptoms of the psychological outcomes we explore. Additionally, due to scarcity of available validated scales, we could not use scales that were validated for use in the Indian population. However, we have used scales that have been frequently administered in the Indian context earlier. We also found high internal consistency of the scales in our study suggesting their reliability.
Another limitation of our quantitative study is the use of several shorter and single-item scales (such as the brief resilience coping scale). Longer scales could have yielded robust results. Because our pretest suggested that the length of the questionnaire was perceived as “a lot” we chose to use shorter scales. For instance, we used a single item to measure self-reported change in food consumption patterns and used two items to measure self-reports of sleep disturbances. However, the items used in our study captured the perception of the participants about the change in their food and sleep cycles during the lockdown, which adds an informative nuance. Additionally, our qualitative data around these measures add more details and increase our confidence in interpreting these findings.
Lastly, the cross-sectional nature of the study limits our ability to make causal claims. Longitudinal studies with frequent follow-ups during the lockdown could have shed light on causal processes. However, we were grateful to be able to recruit a diverse sample for our quantitative and qualitative strands, which allowed us to explore the differences in the psychological outcomes during the lockdown across different groups in India.
Despite these limitations, our mixed methods findings highlight the additional psychological burden that the lockdown has brought to an invisible group, the LGBT adults. To our knowledge this is the first study to look at the differential psychological impact of the lockdown across different social groups (including sexual orientation) in India. Moreover, our use of qualitative narratives allowed us to understand the processes linking several social factors to the psychological outcomes in a nuanced manner. Our study also highlights a few positive aspects of the lockdown, underscoring the increase in social empathy and strengthened social bonds among Indian adults.
Implications and conclusions
Our findings echo Balagos’ argument that the marginalization of LGBT adults would be heightened during disasters, because existing inequalities are magnified at such times . While the Indian Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual acts in 2018, Indian policies are not yet inclusive of LGBT adults, who remain socially invisible. Our findings call for the attention of counsellors and health professionals in understanding the specific psychological needs of the LGBT adults during such crises and providing services accordingly.
This study highlights the need for regular interaction and emotional support from friends, family, partners, and caregivers of LGBT adults, individuals with a history of depression or loneliness, a higher risk of developing complications if they contract Covid-19. A recent study  highlighted the promise of delivering psychological support through online- and tele-counselling. This study warrants the use of such technologies in an inclusive manner. The study also opens avenues for researchers to further investigate the extent and nature of the psychological impact in such marginalized groups during crises or disasters.
Lastly, our study findings provide evidence for mental health policymakers to begin designing inclusive policies to address the concerns of marginalized groups during and in the aftermath of the Covid-19 global crisis.
All in all, our study highlights the differential psychological effect of the Covid-19 pandemic among LGBT adults, groups with history of depression, and those with high-risk of Covid-19 complications. The study thereby urgently calls for the attention of policymakers to take sensitive and inclusive health decisions for the marginalized and the vulnerable, both during and after the crisis.
AJS and MAS thank Nilesh Thube (NVT) for his diligent contribution in data management and representation of results. AJS conveys special thanks to Dipankar Dutta for being extremely patient during the work. AJS and MAS thank Harvansh Dandelia, Rakshit Verma, and several other friends and colleagues who helped in the circulation of the online survey in a short time. AJS thanks his Bula da. AJS is grateful to all the participants for filling up the form and sharing their emotions during this crisis.
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