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Using Chat to support the mental health and resilience of LGBTQ+ youth

A safe space for LGBTQI+ youth
Cosas de Mujeres community activity. © Julia Zulver

Mental Health






South Africa, Zimbabwe, Indonesia


March 2023

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SameSame uses WhatsApp’s chat platform to support the mental health and resilience of LGBTQ+ youth throughout the Global South as they navigate a time in their lives that has the potential to shape their entire future.


Over 50 million LGBTQI+ youth live in countries with discriminatory laws and harmful social norms.


70 countries currently criminalise consensual, private same-sex activity and forms of gender expression, most of them in Africa


In the next eight years, about 40% of the youth around the world will be African.

The two sparks igniting SameSame

SameSame Collective founder, Jonathan McKay, says it was his personal journey navigating his identity in adolescence that provided one of the two sparks for the founding of SameSame. Growing up as "a repressed gay boy in Pretoria South Africa, in a very loving, but very religious household", it was access to an online blog that opened his eyes to the different ways that his sexual orientation and identity might find a home in the world. Published by a group of gay, bisexual and straight teenagers in the US, the blog enabled him to see people living a different life. This came, however, with the knowledge that the privileges he enjoyed - his own bedroom, access to a computer, speaking English - were not available to South Africans questioning their identity in low income communities.

The second spark came through his professional work with Praekelt Foundation and then Praekelt.org, specifically on Young Africa Live. Prompted by Gustav Praekelt, Jonathan began searching online to see what services and spaces were available for LGBTQI+ youth. What he found were many excellent organisations focusing on delivering essential services - helping people find homes or get released from jail in countries where same sex relationships are criminalised - but very few undertaking the work that SameSame is now doing.

“Right now, chat is the best channel for us to reach young people because it is a low data platform, it is on every phone, it is encrypted and young people already use and love it. Right now, it helps us materialise our commitment to provide safe, affirming mental health support to LGBTQ+ youth living in places where it's especially tough to be different.” Jonathan McKay, founder SameSame Collective

Nearly a decade in the making 

In 2012 Jonathan created the first deck for SameSame, giving it its name and outlining its mission to provide a safe space for queer youth using digital technology. It gathered dust on his hard drive, until, just under a decade later, the launch of the first Chat for Impact Accelerator prompted him to look at it again. He then did a second in-depth scan into what was being offered to LGBTQI+ in the Global South and found there was still a significant gap. Motivated to see if he could take SameSame further, he applied and was selected as one of 10 organisations to be given the support to build and launch a WhatsApp messaging service through the Accelerator. 

Nearly a decade in the making, SameSame finally got properly underway in 2021. Jonathan began building a team of writers, designers, clinicians, and software developers who, as members of queer communities throughout the Global South, have the lived experience to understand the challenge of building a chat service like SameSame - one that provides access to information, supports mental health and links youth to services.

“Thanks to Turn.io's Chat for Impact Accelerator, we were able to connect with mental health experts from one of the other participants, StrongMinds. With their support we’ve been introduced to new partners and approaches that have dramatically improved the service we’re offering to LGBTQ+ teens and young adults.” Keith Mundangepfu, SameSame

Why Chat? Why WhatsApp?

In places where LGBTQ+ individuals face discrimination, imprisonment, and even the threat of death, there is a desperate lack of access to secure, relevant, and affordable online services. The public nature of most social networks makes them inhospitable to those of individuals who worry about judgement and discrimination, not just from peers but from local authorities too. Indonesia’s ITE Law, for instance, is often misused to inhibit the distribution of content that does not subscribe to what government and religious authorities deem appropriate, including content designed to support LGBTQ+ communities. 

When Jonathan first conceived of SameSame, chat was not yet widely available but the development of WhatApp’s business solution and its application for social change organisations through a partner like Turn.io changed that.

Now, combining the widespread availability of WhatsApp with the app’s end-to-end encryption and a user experience that is designed to protect the identity of its users, SameSame is able to provide young people with an opportunity to access affirming information and support — privately, 24/7. Where possible, it connects users to offline services that offer guidance, protection, and treatment. Where those services are in short supply or even dangerous to access, SameSame offers virtual advice and live chats with doctors, lawyers, and therapists. 

A global solution with the potential to reach billions

SameSame is being created to meet young people who are coming online to explore their sexual orientation and gender identity. In this way, it is an additional layer to the Stepped Care model of mental healthcare, working at the bottom of the pyramid to help young people take care of themselves, raise their awareness of mental health as an issue, reduce stigma, and make it ok to ask questions before passing them onto other services. As members of marginalised minorities, LGBTQ+ youth are far more likely to experience mental health issues that affect their future wellbeing and livelihoods. With that in mind, SameSame has worked with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) experts to create activities that help users fight depression, anxiety, and stress and overcome homo- and transphobia. 

Collaboration is an important aspect of spreading the word about the chatbot. SameSame works with organisations in Zimbabwe and South Africa that serve the LGBTQ+  community, many of whom have trained peer mobilisers or enhanced peer mobilisers who are trained to identify someone in mental distress or at risk of experiencing a mental health challenge. These mobilisers and community workers can help make individuals aware of SameSame and get them onto the chatbot. This is one part of a user acquisition strategy that is currently being developed for launch early in 2023 that also includes a social media strategy (Instagram ads, Google ad words, influencer campaigns).

In this way, SameSame can potentially reach billions of young people.

“The young people who are our end-users are not necessarily at a point where they are ready to sew that rainbow patch on their jacket and run out the house with a pride banner. But, in these earliest stages of their journey, we want to hold their hand. We want to help them make sense of the world and then, if and when they need it, be able to direct them to local resources that are going to be affirming and sensitive to their needs or, in the cases where those services don’t exist, help them navigate the services that are there.” Jonathan McKay

What’s next?

SameSame recognises the universal struggles that LGBTQ+ people face across the globe while drawing upon local experience and consulting with young people to ensure that identities forged in the West aren’t imposed indiscriminately across very different contexts. Balancing a highly scalable, replicable model with opportunities for local queer teens and young adults to shape and contribute to the service, its ambition is to expand the service to Nigeria, Uganda, Bangladesh, Hungary, Russia — everywhere that LGBTQ+ youth are fighting to find safe spaces to learn, grow, and discover who they are today and who they might become in the future.

Over time, SameSame wants to deliver tailored services, responding to local context and to specific identities. This is based on the belief that the more tailored its  intervention is to the identities of the communities it serves, the more successful SameSame will be. The interactivity that chat allows will play an important part in the development of this.

Using Turn.io: Imagination, empathy and a little bit of unwarranted bravery

“With the tools that Turn.io provides, you can get very very far in building a great service that will offer real value to your beneficiaries. The requirement of having a technical team or a dedicated tech person on the team depends on your specific use case and what you are trying to do. If you are focused primarily on delivering information, I think a content person is much more important - a content person who isn’t afraid of technology. However, there are instances where the service you want to create needs to integrate with, say, a National Health system and that might require a tech person on your team. In the end what you need is imagination, empathy and a little bit of unwarranted bravery!” Jonathan McKay.

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