From Pandemic to Pride: Tara Lombardo (GAL ’06) [she/her] Leads the First and Longest-Running LGBTQ+ Mental Health Organization
June 15, 2021
“I am extremely proud to be a part of an organization that, since 1973, has been focused on providing long-term sexual orientation and gender identity-affirming mental health care to the LGBTQ community and beyond,” says Tara Lombardo (GAL ’06) [she/her].
Lombardo has worked with the Institute for Human Identity (IHI) Therapy Center since 2010, first as a clinical intern, then as an associate director and psychotherapist; in 2020, she was named executive director. IHI is the first and longest-running mental health organization in the United States, providing sexual and gender identity–affirming psychotherapy to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.
As we transition from Mental Health Awareness Month in May to celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month (a movement born from the Stonewall riots that occurred near NYU’s Washington Square campus), we connected with Lombardo to learn how IHI’s impact has expanded amid COVID-19. She also shared why access to identity-affirmative mental health care is crucial for LGBTQ+ people—particularly, as LGBTQ rights remain under threat—as well as her favorite moments from her time at NYU.
Why did you choose NYU Gallatin for your master’s and how did the individualized nature of the program help you achieve your goals?
I was drawn to NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study because I wanted to combine two fields (psychology and LGBTQ studies) in a meaningful way. I also felt designing a master’s program was a rare and exciting challenge that, perhaps, few people have the opportunity to experience. I wanted to work in mental health, and I thought this program provided a solid foundation for that work but in a more creative, self-determined way compared to a traditional program.
I was specifically focused on how lesbian “coming out” stories contributed to identity formation. NYU gave me the platform to look at that particular intersection with the individualized program I built. Looking back, I now realize I was laying the groundwork for a career in mental health specializing in the care of LGBTQ individuals and communities.
The program required constant reflection, self-motivation, and independence. I valued the idea of having an educational goal and working backwards (i.e., what question are you asking and what do you need to know to answer it). That philosophy really resonated within me. I loved figuring out how to get myself from point A to point B. In many ways, to me, that approach mirrors the journey of psychotherapy itself.
How did your NYU education contribute to how you approach your work?
I felt that my master’s program at NYU taught me how to be flexible and intentional, which is a hard combination to carry out. At Gallatin, I had to choose every course and connect it to my thesis work and my ultimate career goal. That was an incredible opportunity but also an immense amount of pressure.
What I understood quickly is that I would use everything I learned: my classes, the lectures, my experiences in NYC, my newly formed relationships, etc. You will use everything. As a therapist, that motto shapes my work, as I use relational therapy predominantly with clients.
Through our clinical time together, my hope is that clients will unearth, recognize, and accept parts of themselves that will prove useful down the road. Oftentimes, people seek therapy to get rid of parts of themselves—to make maladaptive stuff go away. On the contrary, I try to show them how useful these parts are and how they can be of service to the people we are and are trying to become. You will use it all.
In this particular moment, tell us about the importance of access to sexual and gender identity-affirmative mental healthcare for LGBTQ+ people?
After the pandemic lock-down in March 2020, IHI immediately changed to teletherapy-only sessions, which made access to care easier and more flexible for our existing and potential clients. IHI’s client caseload dramatically increased, and we held 49% more sessions over the previous year, which was a record for us. It also highlighted the importance of providing sexual orientation and gender identity-affirming care to the community.
Despite the rise of text-based and other virtual mental health services support, our inboxes were flooded with therapy requests from new clients. IHI doesn’t advertise, so our clients come to us via professional referrals and client recommendations. As a result, this increase was a clear sign that our current clients were sharing their therapy experiences with friends, family, and colleagues, and referring those individuals to us as a safe, affirming provider of quality mental health care.
Last year was a particularly hard one for LGBTQ-identified folks. In addition to the intense stressors brought on by the global pandemic, the Trump administration continued its brazen assault on folks' human right to access adequate health care, housing, adoption, and foster care, and the self-determination of one’s own gender identity.
We are, of course, still emerging from the pandemic. Moreover, there's still very little data on the short- and long-term impacts of this collective experience on LGBTQ individuals and communities.
A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported, however, that LGBTQ people experienced greater negative impacts—job loss and major anxiety, stress, worry, and fear—than non-LGBTQ identified people. This is in addition to the traumas of stigma, marginalization, social isolation, and violence that many lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer folks have already endured in their lives. These combined stressors and impacts make the work we do even more critical with pre-pandemic levels of need.
IHI's work continues to address these challenges and meet our clients where they are with consistent care and dependability. Our immediate pivot from in-person sessions to an all-virtual treatment model without interruption of service meant that hundreds of therapeutic relationships remained intact and available to our clients at a time when they needed us the most. Our ongoing goal is to continue to support clients in processing the traumas of the past year as we step collaboratively into our post-pandemic lives.
How do you stay motivated in doing the important work that you do, and how did the events of 2020, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, impact your work?
IHI had just opened a second office to keep up with demand when the pandemic hit. I was unsure how people would maintain their mental health needs in the face of this devastating crisis. However, I was pleased to see that during this uniquely challenging and disruptive time, people kept coming to therapy and the demand for IHI services grew.
This made me think about the importance of my self-care and how it needed to be a priority more than ever. I started running so that my body was engaged and met (virtually) with my therapist every week. I found social media platforms that were engaging and entertaining and tried my best to avoid doom scrolling on Twitter.
I saw my kids (ages 5 and 8) more because I wasn’t rushing into the city for work. I got to see my girls throughout their day and their smiles (and receive their half-enthusiastic high fives). What I got from them was just the perfect amount of motivation I needed before returning to my therapy sessions.
Overall, I felt the pandemic forced us to stay still and feel our feelings. Conducting therapy during this time was extremely difficult, as I know my coworkers and I were also scared and waiting for things to improve. Yet, week after week, we kept meeting with clients and providing a consistent framework to the best of our abilities.
There is a powerful concept in psychotherapy called object constancy, which is the ability to believe that a relationship is stable and intact despite the presence of setbacks, conflict, or disagreements. It is essential to the formation and maintenance of safety and security. While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person therapy for all of us, it gave us another chance to show up as constant objects for our clients virtually.
IHI has seen tremendous growth during your tenure. What are you most proud of and what’s one thing you haven’t tackled yet that’s still on your to-do list, short- or long-term?
Dr. Charles Silverstein, our founder, created IHI after successfully challenging the American Psychiatric Association to remove “homosexuality” as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Dr. Silverstein wanted IHI to comprise clinicians who were LGBTQ themselves or allies of LGBTQ-identied people.
I am most proud that IHI has trained hundreds of psychotherapists with the special skills necessary to work with LGBTQ clients and communities through our Advanced Clinical Internship program. Our program continues to be highly-competitive across multiple top-tier mental health professional training programs in New York City. I believe this is largely due to our robust, responsive curriculum, which is updated regularly to meet the ongoing needs of our clients and communities.
Most of the clinicians who intern at IHI stay on as staff therapists upon graduation. I’ve really enjoyed watching them grow and flourish into strong, competent LGBTQ-affirming therapists.
A long-term goal of IHI is to provide more consistent mental health care to black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities and to tackle the barriers to care that negatively impact these populations. Over the past two years, IHI has run a free therapeutic group space for queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) to process their experiences. In 2020, IHI was also able to offer free virtual therapy services to the QTPOC community.
Still, there is much more work to be done in addressing the needs of these communities, and IHI is dedicated to identifying and implementing key services that support them.
The world looks much different for today’s college students than when you graduated. If you could give one piece of advice to NYU’s newest alumni, the Class of 2021, what would it be?
I would say to make sure you take a moment and reflect upon your achievements. To complete a degree under the conditions of a global pandemic is no small feat. We rarely sit and process our achievements as we take aim at the next mountain to climb. There are plenty of mountains. Take a moment and acknowledge your adaptiveness and psychological resilience.
Share your most memorable moment(s) from NYU.
Attending NYU was also my introduction to New York City. The education I received extended beyond the buildings on campus.
I was writing a section of my thesis, and I thought some research and documentation from the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn would be perfect. When entering the Archives in Park Slope, I was greeted by some women who looked like they were starting lunch. “Come in,” a voice said, “how can we help you?” I felt taken aback by the informality and friendliness. I walked through a large room lined with books and papers, but these titles—unlike my local library, were all related to lesbian history and lesbian lives. I was waved over by the group and invited to sit at the table, where I was given tea and invited to join the discussion.
Joan Nestle, who co-founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives with Deborah Edel in 1974, asked me about my thesis work and shared their conversation. She said they recently received some archive material from a woman who identified as a lesbian but also as a Nazi. The group was debating taking in material from someone who espoused hate and what place that would have within a grassroots lesbian archive.
It was a provocative dilema, especially one for an organization founded out of the Gay Liberation Movement to document the histories of lesbians outside of the patriarchal lens of history. The ideologies of the founders were that of lesbian feminism. And the books that line the Archive’s shelves tell the many stories of how the personal is always political.
What a lively discussion I wedged myself into! I remember Joan concluding that the Archive existed to capture all lesbian life—that we couldn’t pick and choose our histories. The Archive was there to capture all it, and it was up to us individually to reckon with our history.
I thank my program at NYU for allowing that moment to happen. NYU was a springboard and is situated in a city rich in history, especially LGBTQ history. Ultimately, it provided for an invaluable experience that helped shape the rest of my career.