Coming Out

If your first thought is that this post is going to be about either my sexuality, or someone elses, you’d be forgiven. Coming out used to be about being presented to society, and more recently it’s been about coming out of the closet. Usually the gay closet. I’m not about to do either of these but coming out is something that I’ve been thinking about in terms of mental illness.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of blogs and articles about the stigma of mental illness, and more specifically the stigma of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). And each time I’ve finished feeling a little frustrated, like we haven’t quite hit the nail on the head yet in addressing this problem.

That’s why I started thinking about the way in which sexuality, and more specifically, different kinds of sexuality have been moving toward a more acceptable space in society. I know that there is a long way to go yet for the LGBT movement, to enable all people to feel able to be who they are without being stigmatized. I look forward to the day when we all accept people for who they are.

Image credit: Hugh Young

It’s got me thinking. Head back nearly 30 years ago, in New Zealand there was massive reform going on to see homosexuality legalised in 1986. It was a huge reform which saw many protests and arguments. Actually it was much along the lines of the Marriage Equality legislation that is currently being debated in many countries (including New Zealand).

As a young, (I was 21) heterosexual I could have chosen to ignore the 1980’s reform. At the time I was very involved in a Christian church (as I had been all my life) where homosexuality was frowned upon.  Actually ‘frowned’ is not that word.  It was regarded as wrong, and as a sin.

For me though, at the time I was working in an office where my boss was an openly gay man, and a co-worker was openly transsexual. It gave me a completely different view-point than the middle-class, Christian upbringing I had.  At that time, to be open about your sexuality was a big thing.  Not only were my workmates going against the norm, they were also going against the law.

I have to admit that it wasn’t until I knew those people who I realised that actually we are all the same and that no one deserves to be judged by another.  At 21, I came to the conclusion that if they weren’t hurting anyone then why should they not be able to live freely the life they chose?  I accordingly voted for homosexual law reform.

What has this got to do with mental illness?  It strikes me that those of us who have mental illness need to ‘come out’ too.  I know only too well that when we’re dealing with mental illness, we’ve got more than enough to think about let alone taking on activism.  But it seems to me that it is exactly what had to happen (and still happens) for those of a sexuality other than heterosexuality.  They had to come out in order to see change happen in our society.  Maybe it’s not fair, but no one can deny that coming out has helped open society to different realities.

Image credit: GO LIME Awareness for Mental Health (GLAMH)
Image credit: GO LIME Awareness for Mental Health (GLAMH)

Maybe it shouldn’t have been the responsibility of the LGBT movement to change the thinking of society.  In an ideal world, I’d go so far as to suggest as this should have been a responsibility of all human beings.  The thing is though, that the LGBT movement were the one’s who had a vested interest in getting laws and attitudes changed.

In the same way it is those of us with mental illnesses who have the vested interest in seeing the end of the stigma of mental illness.  It seems to me that I will directly benefit if there is more openness and acceptance of mental illness in society.  For my neighbours who don’t have a mental illness the benefit is indirect.

I’d like to think that everyone in society would want this, but the reality is that there isn’t the same obvious benefit for them, as there is for me.  They’re not the one’s who have to think carefully who they admit their mental illness to.  I do though, and in that respect I am little different from my transsexual work-mate of 30 years ago.

I believe we have a choice.  We can sit and wait, hoping that one day society will magically change its attitude to mental illness.  Or we can think about speaking up.  Coming out about our mental illness.  Because the more people who realise that they have a friend, neighbour, family member or work-mate with a mental illness, the more acceptable it will become.

It doesn’t need to be a big deal.  I don’t think we need to list off all our diagnoses.  Actually I believe that would be as off putting as if we listed off everything that was physically wrong.  We just need to let people know that mental illness is exists, and is not the scary thing society has thought it to be. If we can admit to our friends that we have, say diabetes, then why not mental illness?  This is exactly what the LGBT movement has done… shown that different sexualities are actually normal.

I don’t for one moment think that this is an easy ask.  There is a lot at stake.  I’ve simply come to the conclusion that I can’t just sit and wait, hoping that one day things will change.  It’s not going to magically happen.  But if each person takes a small step, as the LGBT people have done over years, and as other minority groups have also done in the past, then we start to make a difference.

“We learned three crucial lessons from LGBT activists: We had to build a movement. We couldn’t be afraid to challenge our friends in power. And we had to give our cause a human face.”

 – Frank Sharry,  America’s Voice

“We have got some very big problems confronting us and let us not make any mistake about it, human history in the future is fraught with tragedy … It’s only through people making a stand against that tragedy and being doggedly optimistic that we are going to win through. If you look at the plight of the human race it could well tip you into despair, so you have to be very strong.” 

―    Robert James Brown


39 thoughts on “Coming Out

  1. I have often thought the same. It is ironic that homosexuality was listed in the DSM III and earlier (the US handbook that lists and categorizes mental illnesses). It is a huge challenge to decide when knowing or labeling an experience, a problem, a part of who we are benefits us (to get help). And when does it break over that threshold into a judgement, a prejudice, or worse, an excuse? I am not ashamed of my mental health issues, and I know that I am highly functional all things considered, but I still am not sure whether I want to tell people at my current job. Excellent post and well thought out.

    1. Thanks Amanda. I think that work situation is a really difficult one. In my last position people knew I had a mental illness. It had it’s advantages but also disadvantages. I was in a social service organisation and I it was sad that there wasn’t more understanding. That said, I’m still glad they knew.

  2. John Richardson

    I agree. If you allow people to know you, then they may come to love you. Love makes all the difference. When you love someone who embaces a life style, or who is dealing with a condition that you have previously rejected or causes you great pause, for whatever reason, you start a discussion between your heart and brain that can be transforming. It’s a process that can take time, but it also produces results. I think this is the effect of your blog. It’s puts a human face on an otherwise clinical problem. Thank you for helping others understand.

    1. Thanks John. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. When you know and love someone with something like mental illness it is a much easier thing to accept and understand.

  3. Pingback: Coming Out | A Canvas Of The Minds

  4. Important, wonderful post, and I agree with every word you say. Instead of thinking of “mental illness,” people should think of “my friend Joe,” or “my coworker Sue,” or “my son Dan.”……..real people in their lives. You’ve done a great service by writing this post. Thank you.

  5. Great post. I totally agree with the sentiments here. I think the main reason people are afraid, and it’s a valid reason in my opinion is that when one’s mind is in question there is the worry over the stigma, and the worry that once you are labeled it opens you up for others to question everything about you. It affects so many things in life, like jobs, it’s not just about the way people perceive you. Once you have the label on you of being mentally ill it is conceivable that you could be committed against your will at some point. That was always my mothers fear anyway, loss of control over her own welfare. I don’t think things like ocd, bipolar disorder, depression, are illnesses that routinely require hospitalization, but they can and sometimes do, and therein lies the fear I think of people coming out. Once someone’s judgment is called into question due to any mental illness, it can be invalidated and used against them by those that might stand to gain something by doing so. Paranoia? Maybe? But I think it’s what those who suffer fear.

    1. I think it’s a very valid state of paranoia. Many people have been personally hurt badly by people they though loved them, but I’m sure in my own life that speaking out makes a difference. \if nothing else it gives validity to my experience and that has to be worth a lot.

  6. I agree on your statements about coming out regarding mental illness. When I started my blog, it wasn’t with the intent to talk about my mental illness. My sister actually challenged me to do so. It was a very scary thing to do, but, now, I talk about it freely through my blog. I wish I could say it has gotten easier, but it is so personal. It is still hard talking to people head on, especially some people in the medical field. Because I also have a chronic illness, finding a doctor who could look beyond my mental illnesses became quite a challenge. Though I still hate bringing it up, my defenses start to kick in, I know I am surrounded by doctors who do not hold my illness(mental) against me. It’s the same with other people. I’m trying to be more free thinking of what I have to be ashamed of, which is nothing.

    You have to get it out there so that people understand that it is more than what the media presents it to be at times. It needs to be talked about if it is to be more understood. Thank you for talking about it.

    1. Sorry, I should tell you I reblogged this to my blog. I also twittered your link and placed it on my facebook page. It was that important to me to get it out.

    2. I think it’s great that you found a way to talk about it. I know it is hard and it’s very personal. \medical professionals seem to relish the opportunity to thow it back in out faces at times especially when there are other chronic illnesses to deal with. I firmly believe that thought that one drop in the bucket contributes to the ocean. \well done for being that drop in the ocean. \it makes a difference.

  7. There is a problem I see with “coming out” that would not come with admitting, say, one’s sexual identity and diabetes. It is the primary reason why I haven’t “come out” and why I am afraid to do so. See, with sexual identity and diabetes, there’s no worry that the trait could interfere with job competence. What I’m afraid of is people thinking I’m too unstable and incompetent to handle gainful employment, because I’m not. I’m afraid it could cut off what few opportunities I am brave enough to go after (the social anxiety holds me back).

    I do think this is a noble idea, though, and I wish I had the courage to “come out.” I know that perhaps doing so then staying reliable could change the misconceptions I’m afraid of others having about me. But I’m not ready and brave enough yet. Sometimes I’m not even brave enough to step out in public. 😦

    1. That makes perfect sense to me Angel. I get that the employment thing is a really hard one. What came to mind as I was reading your comment was that 30 years ago people coming out in terms of say sexual identity would have risked losing their job. I guess legislation came into place that eventually protected those people’s rights. Perhaps we need that too. Then I guess the next question is what comes first? Chicken or egg? Somehow we need both at the same time, but that isn’t going to be practical for everyone. Coming out about mental illness is a huge thing and there are big costs for many people. I know that and wouldn’t want anyone to feel like they had to do something that they’re not ready for. I think it is perhaps something each individual has to decide for themselves… and that’s ok. I guess the point I really wanted to make was that if people are able to come out, then it will help reduce stigma.

  8. Jennifer Butler Basile

    Reblogged this on Chopping Potatoes and commented:
    The stigma surrounding mental illness has to stop. Cate Reddell at Infinite Sadness . . . or Hope? brilliantly addresses this topic.

      1. Jennifer Butler Basile

        An amazing post, Cate. Such an astute discussion of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Thank you.

  9. I also applaud your efforts for shining a light on this. I do, however, agree with Angel…I believe that instead of people walking through life and understanding with those who have mental illness, coming out will unintentionally create the side-effect of being targeted as unstable for work, relationships, responsibility, etc. Not to mention the “safety” factor since the school shooting in CT. Imagine if people revealed they have mental illness and others react badly by calling Child Services or refusing to hire back a teacher because they have postpartum depression. Again, great idea, but unfortunately we can’t always predict how others will respond.

    1. Thank you for your comments. You certainly raise some good issues to be considered when discussing stigma, but I think you may have missed my point. When those who came out, in terms of their sexuality, religion, ethnicity, etc had taken the same line then we would never have a world where is it becoming ‘safe’ to be yourself today. The people I spoke of in my post who were openly gay, long before it was even legal, faced loss of employment, family and friends, and of course imprisonment.

      There are risks. And you’re right, we can’t predict how others respond but for me, I know that I have to do it anyway if I want to see real change. I don’t believe for one moment that societal attitudes to mental illness will change until individuals take a few risks. Of course that is a really difficult call because when you’re dealing with mental illness you frankly have enough to cope with without societal stigma.

      The world’s response to homosexuality has only begun to change because those who are immediately impacted by it have taken a risk or three. I simply commend them for what has been achieved, and believe that for myself, it is a obvious way to handle stigma. Maybe I will lose job opportunities (actually I have probably already done so) and maybe I will lose relationships with friends and family (again I have already done this), but at least I will know that I am being true to who I am. I refuse to hide away. I refuse to pretend I am someone I am not. That’s my choice and of course, it is entirely up to each person to decide for themselves if it is right.

  10. Pingback: Celebrity Rating Of Stigma | Infinite Sadness... or hope?

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