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Coming out and mental health

Coming out and mental health


For many people in the LGBTQIA+ community, the mental health benefits of coming out are tremendous. There are few things more freeing than embracing your authentic self, but due to cultural and societal factors, coming out can be nuanced and complicated. 

The decisions of when to come out, how to come out, and to whom to come out to are ones that only you can make. You can come out any way that feels right to you, even by sending a text message if that makes you more comfortable. There is no right or wrong way. Everyone’s journey is their own.

Even so (and this is our most important message in this blog post) it is vital that you know that you are not alone. You have support. You have help from mental health professionals and others. We’ll provide some links below.

When it comes to coming out, you can do things according to your own timeline. Nobody should force anyone else, or pressure anyone else, out of the closet. We want to provide you with some facts and information that you can use to consider your options. 

 

Psychological effects of staying in the closet

Generally speaking, being in the closet involves keeping a massive secret from the world. And keeping a secret can be incredibly stressful. Hiding parts of yourself can result in decreased cognitive capacity in many areas of your life. 

Many LGBTQIA+ individuals find that hiding their sexual orientation from the world makes them less effective across all domains of their lives. They spend significant amounts of time worrying about slipping up or revealing too much or feeling anxious about how their loved ones will react.

According to Dr. Marie Atallah, “Members of the LGBTQI+ community are often tasked with constantly appraising their situation and adapting to how much they can safely reveal of themselves. While this can be seen as an adaptive process, it places a great deal of mental and emotional strain on the individual.”

When this strain is also coupled with the pressures of keeping that part of who an individual is secret, it can lead to dissociation. As the Psychiatric Times puts it, clinical presentations “may lie somewhere in severity between selective inattention—most commonly seen in the case of self-aware patients thinking about “the possibility” that they might be gay–to more severe dissociation-—in which any hint of same-sex feelings resides totally out of conscious awareness.”

In addition to dissociation, The Psychiatric Times says, people who have not come out might also experience:

  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Stress
  • Thoughts of suicide

This is why researchers from the University of Montreal declared that “Coming out is no longer a matter of popular debate but a matter of public health.”

 

What happens when you come out?

We don’t wish to imply that coming out will automatically solve all of an individual’s mental health concerns. When someone comes out, there are a range of reactions and experiences that depend greatly on factors like:

  • Cultural background
  • Religious background
  • Racial identity
  • Geographic location
  • Age
  • Gender 

Within each step of the process of coming out, an individual needs support, love, and compassion.

While every coming out journey is unique, it often involves some or all of these experiences:

  • Gradual testing of waters to see how people respond
  • Increased disclosure to those who respond favorably initially
  • Some rejection as the pool of people who know widens
  • Increased support and validation from those who will become the strongest allies and advocates
  • Opportunity and willingness to support others in their own coming out process

Even with support, many LGBTQIA+ people feel considerable anxiety after coming out. Others experience depression and other mental health challenges. 

As we have said in our blog, “Identifying as LGBTQIA+ does not directly contribute to depression and anxiety. However, due to contextual factors such as discrimination, rejection from peer groups, and societal stigma, LGBTQIA+ individuals are faced with an additional emotional burden.” 

Being surrounded by a network of people who are promoting acceptance, progressing policy, and dispelling stigma can help. For LGBTQIA+ people with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other conditions, professional mental health care can make a huge difference.

 

What are the benefits of coming out?

Most LGBTQIA+ people who have come out report that coming out has made a significant positive impact on their lives. 

The previously mentioned study from the University of Montreal found that people who have chosen to be open about their sexual orientation tended to have less chronic stress and fewer symptoms of depression than those who remained in the closet. There is good evidence, too, that coming out has a positive impact on anxiety as well. 

Coming out allows for closer relationships with those with whom you are vulnerable and who respond with affirmation and care. Sharing information about your authentic self with a close friend or supportive family member provides opportunities to validate and deepen the connection.

Embracing your identity can also allow new networking opportunities to connect with other LGBTQIA+ identified people. There is a particular power in being surrounded by people who have common experiences and can offer affirmation. Having a network of friends who have lived through what you are experiencing can help your self-esteem and can be a big mental health benefit of coming out.

Another thing that can benefit your mental health after coming out is that it can facilitate the development of romantic relationships. Embracing yourself can make it easier to find and foster those connections.

 

Risks of coming out 

As you can see, there are many mental health benefits from coming out. However, there are also some associated costs and risks to be aware of. You may want to consider and prepare for them in advance. 

Risks of coming out include:
  • Some invalidation by non-affirming people 
  • Some rejection, possibly even by those who were close family members or friends
  • Confirmation of worry that you would get hurt during the process 

If these risks are realized, there are ways you can overcome them. 

Here are a few tips on how to deal with the difficult consequences of coming out:
  • Rejection and invalidation

Expecting 100% of the people in our lives to support us is unrealistic, and this can be true for many areas of life. 

Here’s something to consider: If someone is unwilling to support you, that is evidence that this is a person you need to draw a boundary with and keep at a distance. Sometimes, if this person was a previously close family member or friend, that can be really sad. Know that you can choose to grieve that relationship. The benefit is that you both learned who that person truly is and you now have the opportunity to invest time and emotional energy in people who are affirming. 

  • Confirmation of worry that you would get hurt

When worries become true, it can be painful and make us want to shut down. Try to remind yourself that pain is a part of life and suffering only arises when we try to avoid unavoidable pain. If you want to live an authentic life, there are costs associated with that. 

Try asking yourself: Is the value of an authentic life worth the risk of pain along the way? You might find yourself saying yes. 

 

Resources for support 

Being open about who you are can have a positive impact on your self-esteem and self-confidence. While you may encounter hurtful people, you will also undoubtedly find many who love, support, and respect you for who you truly are. You will have a network of people supporting you.

Here are some resources you can turn to for support on your journey: 

The Trevor Project: Text START to 678-678 or call 866.488.7386 for free anytime 24/7 to speak to a Trevor counselor who is understanding of LGBTQ issues and won’t judge you. Your conversation will be anonymous and you can share as much or as little as you like.

Brightside Health: Our licensed therapists can help you cope and deal with whatever you’re going through. With unlimited messaging, virtual therapy sessions, and video lessons, you can overcome anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges: 86% of Brightside members feel better within 12 weeks. 

 

Start with a free assessment

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If you’re in emotional distress, text HOME to connect with a counselor immediately.

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If you’re having a medical or mental health emergency, call 911 or go to your local ER.