Interacting with people is helpful for one’s mental health

By August 28, 2020 Learning, Newsroom, Regional

Contributor:
Doan Thanh Tung, Executive Director, Lighthouse Social Enterprise, Vietnam
2019 HERO Awardee for Young Achiever


My name is Thanh Tung. Since 2004, I’m the Executive Director of the Lighthouse Social Enterprise, a community-based NGO led by—and closely working with—gay, bisexual men, Men who have sex with men (MSM), Transgender people (TG) and the LGBT community in Vietnam.

I’m a young HIV and LGBTIQ activist with 10 year experience in working with groups that are young, vulnerable and disadvantaged. We work around community health and deal with stigmatisation, discrimination, sexuality, SRHR and HIV/AIDS.

What did you have planned to do in 2020 before COVID-19 hit?

We had planned a lot of activities for 2020. We planned to visit partners from Kenya and Ukraine to learn their from experiences in working with young key populations and find the opportunity to scale up in Vietnam. We also planned to celebrate IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) day with the local LGBTIQ community; and conduct a young key population study. Further more, we had organisational development and resource mobilisation training on the agenda, as well as organising the Pride event and LGBTIQ National Summit 2020. 


With the effect of COVID-19 outbreak, how did you respond to this? Can you detail the evolving service needs of the community during lockdown, and how community groups are able to address the issues?

Similar to multiple organisations, all of our team worked from home from the beginning of outbreak. Most of the activities were postponed or changed to online meetings. We focused on combining COVID information on our community channels. On the Gtown website and fan page, as well as the Lighthouse fan page we posted several articles. These are posts offering guidance regarding how communities and activists can deal with the crisis. You can find updates on the pandemic situation and on the community where we challenge the myths around COVID and ARV, HIV etc. We also provide a hotline for mental counseling and organised Zoom talks with the community to connect with one another, in order to avoid loneliness and stress.

Since there is a lock down in Vietnam, Lighthouse in collaboration with Vietnam Administration of HIV/AIDS Control (VAAC) disseminates the new decision regarding access to ARV medication for people who are on ARV treatment and PrEP. We try to ensure that PLHIV can get ARV for several months without having to travel. They can get temporary ARVs at the nearest facility where they are staying.

For emergency cases, Lighthouse further more provides HIV testing, plus free condoms and lubricants at the office. We also deliver self-test kits to the community and help

PLHIV to get ARVs as we mailed it to their home if they were in quarantine or in areas with local lockdowns.

What were the issues that the community in Vietnam experienced during this time?
What are the gaps in terms of addressing the issue?

PLWH, SW and PUD

  1. Travel restriction to get ARVs
  2. The treatment facilities are in lock down (Bạch Mai hospital, National Hospital of Tropical Diseases)
  3. Stock-outs of second-line regimen of ARTs
  4. Stigma and fear of confidentiality at the new ARVs facility in hometown
  5. Concern about the association between HIV and Covid-19
  6. Loss of jobs lead to financial pressure to meet personal basis needs
  7. Mental health issues

LGBTIQ

  1. Domestic stigma and discrimination
  2. Mental health issues and support services
  3. Loss of jobs, no or less income
  4. Limited access to condoms, lubricants and testing services
  5. Limited access to hormone therapy

How have you, staff, and volunteers working for NGOs been able to stay safe from COVID-19?

At Lighthouse, we provided detailed information on safety measurement for our staff and volunteers. Masks; hand sanitisers and splash proof hats to testers, peers and volunteers who work in field were distributed. Social distancing was applied when we met in person; and working from home from the beginning of pandemic was implemented.

We also care about our staff’s mental health and therefor provided material related to mental self care. People are encouraged to talk to each other and find their favourite activities to do during the lockdown. Last but not least, a psychologist is available for our staff members in need.

How has COVID-19 outbreak changed the way that you/your organisation and other NGOs will be working in the future?

We have learned to be flexible in a way that we can implement our activities, using social media and virtual tools. This is the biggest change. In Vietnamese culture we prefer face to face meetings than virtual ones, but due to Covid-19 most of the meetings have become virtual. At first, it didn’t seem to work in the beginning. Somehow it taught us new ways of making it more attractive and interactive.

Now, even though we don’t have to be in lockdown anymore, we still keep virtual meetings to save time and budget. Another thing which has changed, is that people now come up with plan B in case another Covid-19 outbreak takes place. 


What are the worries from your community about the ‘new normal’?

In the new normal, we are mostly concerned about the development of the community organisation. A number of them faced difficulties in maintaining the team and volunteers, in finding resources, etc.

Human rights could be affected by cases which took place during Covid-19. For example, discrimination towards PLHIV by saying these community members can “cause” Covid. Another example has to do with leaked HIV information about PLHIV, stating that they are “related” to a Covid case.

Stigma and discrimination are increasing among LGBTIQ, as well as poverty and unemployment among PLHIV and LGBTIQ. Many were fired and lost their job, including self-financing jobs.

As a young leader of the organisation, how are you dealing with the mental health issues of staff and yourself? What are your tips for fellow activists and those that are leading an NGO?

As I mentioned above, we provided information on mental health care to all staff. We frequently interact with each other and always think positively. That is helpful for myself, our staff and the community and a good way to deal with mental health issues. Our psychologists are also available for counseling for those who need to share stress.

Are there any positive lessons learnt from the effects of COVID-19?

I think we should always prepare a plan B for our activities regarding any similar crisis, in case it’s needed. Be flexible and capacitate yourself with the use of social media and other virtual tools. Further more, think positively and share this with your loved ones. Interacting with people is also helpful for one’s mental health.

What would you like to say to donors?

COVID-19 brought us many lessons. Everything could be more difficult for grassgroots organisations in the new normal. Now more than ever, we need you support to recover and build our capacity of resilience.