Coming Out… Again
Many members of the LGBTQ community who have made the decision to be out about their sexual or gender identity know a thing or two about coming out. They understand what a personal decision this is and how scary this can be. While this alone can be difficult, LGBTQ people who live each day with a mental or emotional illness such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating, and PTSD, often face the challenge of coming out on multiple fronts.
It is no secret that people who have a mental illness often face misunderstanding and discrimination in their lives. For many people, they cannot hide their illness and are, in a sense, “outed” to those around them by virtue of changes in their behavior or mood that others can notice. However, many people face the burden of living with a potentially debilitating mental condition that others cannot see just by looking at them. These people are considered to be among the millions of people around the world who have some form of an “invisible illness.”
Keeping Mental Illness Closeted
The fact that many people have an invisible illness creates an uneasy conundrum for those individuals. Being able to hide one’s mental or emotional condition makes it possible to blend in with everyone else and this has both benefits and costs. For some, being able to be hide their illness allows them to avoid the reactions of others. Many individuals impacted by mental illness talk about how both negative and positive reactions can be hurtful insofar as they cause these individuals to feel as thought they are different from those around them.
While there may be benefits to keeping a mental illness private, there can be emotional repercussions to this as well. As many LGBTQ people who have ever lived a closeted life for any amount of time can attest, a closet is a lonely place. By not letting others know about a mental or emotional condition, sufferers can experience feelings of isolation. In addition, hiding one’s mental condition can prevent those individuals from accessing much needed support from others. People with mental illness will often describe the pain associated with being assumed to be without such a condition. This can look like being invited to do something that feels impossible to them, such as attending a crowded event or planning an event in the future which would require a person to be able to predict their mood on that day. When others make assumptions about what is possible for a person with an invisible illness, this often reinforces feelings of being misunderstood.
One of the most common fears reported about coming out is being unsure about how others will treat you when you do. A common fear is the loss of acceptance or connection with others. LGBTQ people often shoulder a double burden in this regard, having potentially faced loss or rejection related to their sexual or gender identity. For this reason, it can be even more challenging to make the decision to come out. Similarly to coming out as LGBTQ however, the act of coming out with a mental issue is an ongoing process, rather than an singular event and individuals may choose to be selective in who they decide to confide in.
Coming Out as a Person with Mental Illness
When choosing to come out as having a mental condition to others, it can be helpful to remember that sharing private information such as being a person with depression or with an eating disorder is in fact offering a gift to the person receiving that information. In sharing something so personal, it can feel as though we are burdening others with our problems, but often, and with the right people, sharing in this way can be an invitation for others to know us better or become closer with us. While it is true that some people may react negatively to learning about a friend or family member’s mental illness, for many people, the experience of being known and understood is worth the risk. Much like being a part of the LGBTQ community, having a mental or emotional illness is without shame and simply one part of a person’s identity.
If you are a person with a mental illness and considering inviting others in your life to know about it, consider speaking to a mental health professional in advance to help you consider how best to prepare for success.
IntraSpectrum Counseling Our therapists are specialized in supporting the full spectrum of LGBTQIA identities and committed to helping you become more you. A validating and supportive environment can help you discover your authentic self and free expression. We offer individual, couples, family, and group counseling, and are conveniently located in the heart of both downtown Chicago and Andersonville. Contact Us with any questions you may have about our therapy services. To set up an appointment with one of our therapists, please visit Get Support.
Dr. Ian Bonner is a staff psychologist at IntraSpectrum Counseling. He specializes in working with the LGBTQ population, addiction, couples counseling, and mood disorders. Ian is a graduate of the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, and is the former case management coordinator for the Horizon Youth Program at the Center on Halsted.