When I came out as gay at the age of twenty-four, I felt a huge weight off my shoulders. I had been hiding who I really was for most of my life. Letting go of that burden gave me hope for a happy, healthy future. However, a year later I went through the worst major depressive episode of my life.
The depressive episode did not come out of nowhere. I had been struggling with depression since long before I came out. But it felt unfair. Coming out had felt like a fresh start, not just some milestone along the way.
The reality is that many LGBTQ people continue to suffer from mental illness after they have come out of the closet. While coming out can relieve many of the symptoms and help kickstart the healing process, it is not a magical way of curing your mental illness. Here’s why.
The Trauma of Hiding:
First, let’s identify why coming out is so important. Many people question whether it is necessary. After all, no one comes out as straight.
The main reason coming out is so important is because hiding who you are is a very deep type of trauma. Hiding is something you do in response to a threat. If you’ve been hiding for years, it means you have felt threatened for years. You did not just experience a traumatic event, but lived this trauma.
Coming out does not negate the threats you were hiding from. For some people, those threats only become material once they are openly LGBTQ. However, it does allow you to stop living in a state of ‘fight or flight.’ While in the closet, you internalize the threat. Once you come out, it becomes easier to see that the thing you fear is something external.
With this in mind, why do LGBTQ people still experience mental illness after coming out?
Healing the Wounds:
Unfortunately, having to live in the closet has a lasting impact on a person. With the trauma of hiding out of the way, there are now wounds that have to heal. In the same way that a person who suffered a heart attack needs time and therapy to recover after life-saving surgery, so too does an LGBTQ person require healing.
Coming out of the closet is a major milestone, but it is not the end of a journey. That said, with support and therapy, further mental health issues can be prevented.
Some people experience acceptance and love when they come out. For those who experience increased persecution, things are more complicated. While they no longer have to internalize the experience in the same way, the threat of rejection or even violence can cause a different kind of trauma.
For people in these circumstances, it is important to find help from accepting family and friends and organizations. If you or anyone you know is experiencing threats of violence, consider getting in touch with the following organizations:
- Anti-Violence Project
- National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE)
- The Trevor Project
- Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)
- Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)