Coming Out With Mental Illness

coming outComing out is not easy. In my life, I came out as a gay man and as a person with bipolar disorder. Both were difficult. I was cautious when I came out as gay. I live on the west coast in Los Angeles, but, most of my close friends and family live scattered throughout the Midwest and the east coast. Living so far away I could have chosen to keep my mouth closed and not said a word. However, based on my experience attending men’s group meetings at the local Gay & Lesbian Center I decided it was best to come out sooner rather than later. I heard too many horror stories of people accidentally being outed with disastrous results. In addition, I had reached the point that I no longer felt shame and decided there was no reason to continue hiding in the closet. It was time to be who I am.

Coming out of the mental health closet was also difficult. I tried to hide it from all but my closest friends and family. I did feel shame. I didn’t want to appear lazy when depressed or crazy when manic. Eventually, I did choose to come out as a man with bipolar disorder for the same reason I came out as a gay man. It was time to be who I am.

A study published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information, a branch of the National Institute of Health, determined that coming out of the mental health closet is similar to coming out as a person who is gay. The report emphasized they were not suggesting that homosexuality is a form of mental illness, rather, the public stigma and the personal stigma of each have similar qualities. For example, gay men and lesbians are not recognized by others unless they somehow choose to identify themselves as such. Similarly, most people with serious mental illness are not obvious unless they discuss their illness or mental health history.

From the study:

This kind of hidden identity may protect the person opting to remain in the closet, i.e., deciding not to let others know of one’s mental health history. People who come out about their mental illnesses may expose themselves to additional discrimination and social disapproval. Research suggests however, that people who are out about their condition often report benefits. Studies on the gay community, for example, identified benefits including less stress from having to no longer keep the secret

Coming out as a person with a mental disorder is a big step. Some people choose never to do so, while others choose never to be in the closet and come out immediately after being diagnosed. Neither is right or wrong. If you have decide to be open about your mental illness, there are some important points to consider.

  • Most important is to accept yourself. If you are not fully comfortable with your illness then you’ll probably want to confide in no one except your closest friends or family. Remember, once you tell people you have a mental illness, you cannot take it back. Unlike your local paper, you cannot print a retraction.
  • Get support, if possible. Attend a local Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) meeting, or a meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). You can ask others what their experiences were in coming out. Both the DBSA and the NAMI websites allow you to search for meetings in your local area.
  • Prepare Yourself. Start with a list of the most significant people in your life to help you decide who to come out to. Perhaps you’re prepared to tell everyone, or, only your family, or, only your friends. What about your job? Do you work in an environment that will be supportive or could it have a negative impact? If you are unsure, then it’s probably best not to tell your boss or co-workers.
  • Make sure you only tell people you can trust. It’s likely you don’t want to discover other people have learned about your illness through the grapevine. You need to feel fully confident that those you confide in will respect your privacy.
  • Coming out is not a one-time deal. It is a lifetime process. When you make new friends or get a new job, you will need to decide, once again, who to confide in.
  • Be patient. Some of the people you confide in may never have known or been aware of others in their life with a mental illness. It probably took you time to process your diagnosis, allow them time as well. NAMI frequently offer support groups for friends or family members of someone who has a mental illness. You may want to suggest they attend.

Some information provided by National Center for Biotechnology Information

18 comments on Coming Out With Mental Illness

  1. You bring up a very important point here, Bradley. I have come out within a very tight circle: a handful of friends, and only one of the few ministries I am involved in in church. It was hard. Of course my family and close relatives know. I’d like to be free and not care who knows but the world in general does not understand, nor do they care to research it. One person in church actually asked to pray for me. Of course I said yes, then to my surprise he prayed that God deliver me from the demons that were attacking me. My church in general is not like that or of that mindset. So yeah, I’m having a hard time breaking free. I want to, but am afraid of judgement. Ugh.

    1. I completely understand your fear of judgment by people who either know nothing, know very little, or simply do not wish to research the disorder. I have been there, and I have had to force myself to realize that it is not me that has a problem (although I did in the beginning), but it is them.

      I think one thing that really helped me with my decision to live openly as a Bipolar was my mother. She attended the NAMI Family to Family classes here in our city in her desire to understand how I experience the world. She went every Monday night for three hours for about 6 weeks after working all day to learn about and experience what it is like to have a severe mental health issue.

      If it weren’t for her incredible strength, and her fierce love for me that led her to do this, I would live in hiding. But, drawing strength from her, my Buddhist community (where all are accepted as they are), and my really whacky friends, I live openly. Hopefully, someday, you will too, if that is what you want, and the rest of the world can either accept it or not.

      1. Your comment made me smile. How lucky you are to have such an open-minded mother. Open minded families is something I wish for everyone.

        1. My mother is awesome… father, on the other hand, did not believe that I was truly mentally interesting until he made the mistake of calling Bipolar disorder a “life choice”. The result was 3 emails. One was only one line long, and the next 2 were novellas about what it is truly like to live with multiple mental problems.

          He seems to be a bit more receptive after those emails. My sister just treats the same way she always did.

          It’s a battle, but most of my family is receptive to the notion that I am just different in some ways from other people. I have more to say about your post so I am going to reblog parts of it, if you do not mind. It made me think.

          1. I never mind reblogging as long as you refer back to my blog. Unfortunately, because I’ m self hosted the reblog button on your wordpress screen won’t work. You’ll have to retype (or cut and paste) to reblog any of my information

            1. I linked back to your blog as it is only courteous to cite the author of anything you use 🙂

              I used Word and cut and pasted……so I ended up with parts so the post wouldn’t get too long as i have a tendency to write novellas when a thought occurs to me. I have to fully explore it…I am like a little kid, except my question has never been “Why?”, it has always been “Why not?” 🙂

    2. I’m sorry you had a bad experience at church. When I came out of the mental health closet there were people who did not understand. I go to a very liberal church, however, so I believe I opened a lot of hearts and minds. When our minister when on vacation he agreed to let me do a sermon. That made a big difference. Here’s a link to the transcript. in case you’re interested:

      1. Your sermon was beautifully done, Bradley. I’m glad your church is open minded and accepting. Overall, mine is too. We have ministries to help people with all kinds of problems. We are called by many who come there a “safe haven for the hurting.” Our leaders want to start a ministry to those with depression. I’ve been asked to write and present the material. We’d start with 6 weeks, once a week, 3 or 4 times a year. I don’t think I’m up to it. I have an outline I can’t seem to flesh out very far. They want to start in September. If I can’t get it done by mid August, I’m going to have to tell them I can’t do it. I’m going to try the best I can and see what happens–maybe, just maybe I can do it.

        It’s just this one middle aged man in church who feels mental illness is from the devil. There may be a handful of others among the 800 attenders that also feel that way, but I haven’t met them. My pastors and all the “helps” workers, of whom I’m a part, know about me and lovingly accept me. We can’t teach or change those who have dug in their heels and choose to be ignorant. I still am fond of this man and his wife. I don’t hold a grudge against him.

        Thanks for sharing about Dorothea Dix and that time in history right up until now. I have these grand ideas sometimes about speaking out and changing things. Yet I’m extremely introverted. I’m terribly and horribly depressed right now, so I may not be as clear as usual. Forgive me if I’m a little jumbled.

        Keep talking — don’t give up. We need your voice.

        1. If your church will allow it, you may want to consider starting a DBSA group. Their link is They provide flyers, start up kits and are very kind helping you get things started.

          Sorry to hear your going through a rough patch. I hope it clears soon.

  2. Since I have been obviously mentally “ill” (oh how I hate that word, among others) since I was very young (about 12), coming out for me was not very difficult. I am excellent at hiding the fact that I have Bipolar disorder when necessary, but the PTSD, Panic disorder with Agoraphobia, and ADD as well as a tendency to isolate are a bit harder to hide. I fully accept that I have never had nor will I ever have a “normal” emotional life. If others do not want to accept that, then I probably do not want them in my life. Yes, I am a bit bitchy. But I am just saying if you don’t want to deal with my “illness” then I do not want to deal with you, either. Me and my illness go everywhere together. We are a package deal.

    I think my really BIG coming out happened at one of my Buddhist discussion meetings when I spoke up about the topic we were mulling over, and announced that I have been both blessed and cursed with Bipolar disorder. Many people in my Buddhist community know that I have Bipolar disorder (it has led me to try to step down from my position as a District leader about 3 times, and all 3 times, the more Senior leaders said no), but some at the meeting did not know and they looked quite surprised. Like I said, I am very good at hiding it. Obviously, my family knows, as well as my handful of friends.

    I think that for myself it was not a really big deal because I have never been very good at “playing a part”. I have always been who and what I am, and I really do not know how to be anything else. I have always been a little “touched” as some people say. So, I don’t even try to hide it anymore unless the situation calls for it.

    I do not think I would come out to an employer unless absolutely necessary. There is way too much social stigma that still surrounds mental health for that. Now, if I were obviously in an episode, I would have to say something to explain my behavior. Mania and Depression (yes the capital D kind) can become obvious departures from your normal behavior, and would have to be addressed.

    I also have the “rapid cycling” type of Bipolar disorder which sucks. I am almost constantly flowing into and out of mood states with the majority of them being of the “mixed” type. So, it would become apparent at some point as the quality and quantity of my work production would vary. This is probably why I haven’t tried to work in a number of years.

    Quite frankly, whether people know about my mental “interestingness” is of less concern to me than my remaining “stable”. I have plateaued in my improvement. I am not getting better, and I am sometimes worse. My goal is to keep the worst symptoms (like my suicidality, thoughts of harming myself, searing depressions, etc) to a minimum. My mental health trumps any stigma that society may have. My health is more important to me than what people are going to think. Although, I do realize that many other people have a difficult time with the decision of whether to come out or not. I just have a huge mind-mouth disconnect, and sometimes it gets the better of me 🙂

    I hadn’t thought about that particular part of being mentally “ill” since I tend to be very honest about who and what I am. Although, I do admit, I had a very hard time swallowing the diagnosis even though I had been Bipolar for about 11 years prior to being officially diagnosed.

    As always, good post!

    1. I was fortunate that I embraced my diagnosis. It was comforting to know my “craziness” had a name and that I wasn’t alone. Since my diagnosis 8 years ago I have not worked, Both my psychiatrist and my therapist do not support me going back into the labor force. That’s fine with me because I don’t think I’m ready yet either.

      I like your attitude regarding those who do not understand. It can be hard enough to get by doing a daily routine. You don’t need the added stress of trying to make everyone understand. Hopefully there will come a day when most people do get it. I’m optimistic enough to believe it will happen in my lifetime.

      1. I did not accept my diagnosis well. I knew something was different than it had been in the past. I had been through chronic depression as a teenager, but it was some time after I turned about 17 that I became manic as well. My diagnosis came after about 6 months of intense therapy after what I can only describe as a nuclear meltdown. This time was different; it came on suddenly, it was the most bone-crushing depression I had ever experienced, and I couldn’t even bring myself to actually talk on the phone with my supervisor’s to tell them that, yet again, I wouldn’t be there (I left voice messages). I eventually returned to work after 11 days missed. Needless to say, I had a drinking problem at the time, and combined with the onslaught of the depressive side of Bipolar disorder, I missed more work, and with no diagnosis to protect me from being fired, I was fired. I have tried to work again, but it ended the same way.

        As far as I am concerned, I will talk to anybody about mental health issues, including my own. Because if no one speaks, no one listens, and then no one can begin to understand that we are basically normal people with serious mood issues. I think people are afraid of mental illness because it can’t really be quantified or visually seen. I know the professionals have their MMPI’s, their Beck’s Anxiety or Depression scale (can’t remember which), but mental illness is still an abstract idea. You can’t touch it, you cannot x-ray it, it cannot be tested with blood, etc. in the ways that a physical can be tested. I also believe that many people have difficulty with abstract thinking; they like solid things like a x-ray of a tumor, for example. People like to be able to SEE illness, not just be told that someone has an unnoticeable, completely cerebral illness. They just can’t wrap their minds around it. I do, however, believe that the more of us that choose to live in the open (sounds like being a vampire), and the more it is talked about, there will be a change in the social understanding of mental illness. Like I said earlier, if people don’t speak up, no one will be there to listen.

          1. Yeah, between coffee, adderall and your post this am, my brain is going again. i had never thought about telling people about my mental issues as “coming out”, but now that I think about more, I realize it is very similar to any type of truth telling about oneself. Especially, something as abstract as a mental issue. One of my friends said when I told her (she’s a Korean Buddhist friend): “Everyone have something wrong with them, they just say nothing.”

  3. In my experience, I have generally been forced to “come out” as being bipolar when my behavior became so erratic that questions were asked, suspensions were threatened, or when people seemed very confused. This is mainly in the work world. As for family, they all know, or rather, the ones that count do.

    1. I’ve had similar instances, Rose, where I had to say something to explain my behavior. Never fun to be forced to come out.

  4. You do a wonderful service here, Bradley, talking about “coming out.” I’ve lived a life of keeping secrets. The shunning of my brother because of mental illness, and that leading to his suicide taught me to not talk about my lifelong clinical depression. And holding on to secrets of childhood sex abuse until it was “do or die” and then wishing I were dead…I’m familiar with facing the risk-taking. But I blogged my way to freedom and it’s a much better life. I’ll still always feel the shame somewhat to do with both, since it is how I was programmed. But I’ve got a few years left (I hope 🙂 ) to move beyond that.

    1. Thank you for the compliment, Mandy. You’ve made my day. I’m happy to read that you found an outlet (blogging) that has given you freedom you need and deserve. Keep staying the course and I’m sure things will continue to get better for you.

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