Coming 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