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.

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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

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