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To Anyone Considering ‘Coming Out’ About Their Mental Illness

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In this stage of my life, I’m open about my mental illnesses. I haven’t always been though. For many years, I kept them to myself. My parents knew because they drove me to counseling, but that was it. Then, I told a close friend. Then, I told another friend. Eventually, it became less and less of a “thing” to tell someone. I kept talking until I felt comfortable doing it.

It sounds easy, like I woke up one day and decided to say something out of the blue. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. It takes time to come to the decision and work up to speaking. A recent article from The Washington Post, titled “Unwell and Unashamed,” uses the phrase “coming out” to describe publicly identifying as a person with a mental illness. The term “coming out” is typically reserved for defining one’s sexual orientation. “Coming out” is a process, not just a moment. It’s often approached with stress and not always met with understanding, to say the least.

“Coming out” about a mental health condition comes with its own difficulties. Telling someone you have a mental illness can be nerve-wracking and painful, even if you’re telling someone you trust and not screaming it to the entire world. Whether it’s telling one person, a crowd or the internet, it’s still hard.

There are many decisions people with mental illnesses have to make when choosing to talk about their mental illnesses, whether to attribute your name to an article you wrote about your illness at its worst or to put a face to the Twitter profile where you talk about your personal experiences. These sound like simple decisions, but they’re not.

There are a lot of fears that run through your mind when thinking about disclosing a mental illness:

  • How will this person react when I tell them?
  • Will this change how they think of me?
  • Will they still want to be my friend/significant other/co-worker/boss/spouse?
  • Will I be fired from my job?
  • Will my family be angry if I “go public”?
  • Will the entire process trigger my mental illness?

The list goes on. Unfortunately, these are realistic questions. The only way to end the stigma against mental illness, though, is to speak about mental illness, to give it a face and a story. For many living with mental illness, the issue comes down to one question: To tell or not to tell?

To anyone contemplating speaking about their mental illnesses, this is for you, from someone who has been there:

1. Be comfortable.

Telling someone doesn’t just mean opening your mouth to say something; it requires strength. It means looking stigma in the face and laughing. It means confronting the prospect of discrimination, ridicule and change. It means convincing yourself you don’t care about the possible consequences, even if deep down they terrify you.

This isn’t easy and requires some working up to. Where you are in your recovery will also play a role in when you have the strength to speak. The timeline depends entirely on an individual, so give yourself time. Go slow if you have to.

2. Don’t overthink it.

Think about the big questions and the repercussions, but don’t dwell on them. There are a thousand reasons you can come up with for coming out with a mental illness and a thousand possible reasons to keep quiet. You can really go around and around in circles trying to decide.

Try to separate the “cons” from cultural stigma against mental illness. That is something we can change and is changing. Don’t let the stigma hold you back. Here’s one thing you can put in the “pro” column: People like me will rally around you. You will have a support network of people you’ve never met, who care deeply about your well-being. We’re out there, in your cities, on social media and here for you.

3. Be prepared.

A little preparation is always a good thing. Have a plan in place in the event that telling someone goes south. What can you do to take care of yourself in the event someone reacts poorly? If you have some good friends who know about your mental illness and support you, then let them know you may need some extra support after “coming out” to someone. You can also turn to local support groups and organizations, like the  National Alliance on Mental Illness, who have your back and understand.

4. When you’re ready — just do it.

Above all, just do it. Maybe not today or even next year, but make it a goal for someday. I think you will be glad you did. Stepping out of the darkness is one of the best decisions I’ve made. It felt like an elephant was lifted off my chest. It’s something I had to do to stand up for my experience and the experiences of others with mental illness. I think it would have been worse if I let the fear and stigma stop me.

Originally published: July 6, 2016
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