Many of us in the LGBTQIA+ community know all too well what it’s like to be queer with a mental illness.
I know this because when I tell you that I have a mental illness, more than half of you say, “Me too.” We have these conversations on the regular – whispers at Pride, a confession in our support groups, anonymously in our forums, or if we’re feeling brave, it’s an off-hand comment when a friend is struggling.
But too often, these conversations are happening behind closed doors, and the folks who need us most are often left on the other side.
The stigma of being a person with a mental illness is enormous enough on its own, but to be queer at the same time is daunting.
But without visibility, too many people in our community are left convinced that they are alone as they occupy an intersection that too few are willing to openly claim.
So many folks in our community have struggled with their mental health, and yet the only time it’s considered appropriate to open this “can of worms” is when someone in our community commits suicide. Suddenly, we collectively nod and, feeling brave, we admit, “I’ve been there.”
We talk about suicide, but we often neglect to discuss mental health more generally. We neglect to talk about the pain and instead we talk about the consequences.
Every other day, there’s an email in my inbox from someone in our community who says, “You’re transgender and bipolar? I thought I was the only one.”
The idea that anyone in our community would be convinced that they are alone in this struggle is indicative of a bigger issue. This tells me that conversations about mental health and mental illness in the queer community aren’t accessible enough for everyone.
And ultimately, if we continue to have these conversations in private – afraid to admit that we are here, queer, AND neuroatypical – we uphold the isolation, the fear, and the stigma that convinces so many queer people that they must suffer alone.
Where are the conversations about depression? Where are the conversations about anxiety? Where are the conversations about queers with OCD, queers with bipolar disorder, queers with borderline personality disorder, that are actually written by queer people?
And are these conversations accessible? Or are they hidden away on the top shelf, just out of reach?
Instead of telling queer youth that it gets better, why aren’t we having more open and honest conversations about what it means to struggle with your mental health as queer? What it means to be queer and hospitalized? What it takes to survive when you are marginalized at this complicated intersection where the stigma and the pain are so compounded?
It’s not always safe to reveal a diagnosis, and it’s scary enough to come out once. But if you can, I’m asking you to come out twice. I’m asking you to leave the closet once and for all. I want to issue a challenge to my community – to those of you who come to me and say, “yes, me too” – to emphatically remind others like you that they, too, are not the only ones.
Because straight and cis people aren’t the only ones who grapple with mental illnesses – in fact, these disorders disproportionately impact our community, and fuel the tragic losses we incur as more and more of us take our own lives.
Inevitably, if we only have these conversations under pseudonyms, behind avatars, or in the comfort of our own homes, we cannot advocate for ourselves, and we cannot reach the people in our community who desperately need our stories, our words, and our voices.
I know I am not the only genderqueer person who has a mental illness – but so long as we live in a world where people are actually convinced that I am the only one, or worse, do not know that I and others exist, LGBTQIA+ people will continue taking their own lives under the impression that people like them don’t have a future, people like them don’t matter, or people like them aren’t meant to exist.
I am asking you to be visible, because visibility is everything when you are in the depths of these illnesses, unable to imagine a future that has you in it.
Visibility is everything when the pill bottle is in your hand, and all you can see is the pain you’ve silently endured day after day. I can tell you (and maybe you remember, too, because maybe you’ve been there) that a bottle of pills is nothing in comparison to the years of pain that break you down, pain that you are convinced that no one understands.
I understand. So, so many queer folks understand. And there are people in our community, right now, who need to know that we exist.
We still live in a world where queer people with mental health struggles are largely invisible and isolated. But that is within our power to change, if we choose to extend our hand and reach out to them, and if we make ourselves known.
The next time you are wondering if your story could make a difference, remember what I am saying: I thought the same thing. I didn’t know if my words could ever make a difference. But you know what? Five million views later – and countless letters that start with, “I thought it was just me” and “I am so glad I found you” and “you make me believe in something” – have proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that our voices are needed.
Our voices could save someone’s life.
So where do we start? There’s a call for submissions for a great anthology, HEADCASE, of folks who are both queer and neuroatypical; there’s an awesome website, Queer Mental Health, that’s looking for new writers.
Heck, you can just do what I did and start a blog (and let me know so I can go promote the fuck out of it).
Volunteer at your local LGBTQIA+ community centers, volunteer for queer hotlines, or start a support group for folks in your area and get the discussion going. And of course, support the organizations, writers, bloggers, and communities who are keeping these conversations alive.
It can be as simple as saying “me too” when someone in your community talks about their depression instead of just nodding; it can be as simple as saying “I know what that’s like” or “I have that too” or, most importantly, affirming that they are not alone.
It can be as powerful as saying, “I have depression and I need help” to the folks in your community, instead of choosing to keep it to yourself and going it alone. And it can be as beautiful as saying, “How can I help?” when someone else opens up to you.
We are no strangers to struggling. But we, as a community, are also not strangers to supporting one another, advocating for change, and creating a refuge for those who need it most.
And when it comes to our mental health, it’s not enough to have these conversations where only a few people can access them.
We need to make our voices loud enough so that no one doubts that we are here.
Sam Dylan Finch is a queer activist and feminist writer, based in the SF Bay. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably eating takeout and dancing to Taylor Swift.
Editor’s Note: This article is by no means intending to invalidate or ignore the many courageous activists who are, indeed, very open about their mental health struggles and identify as queer. It is meant to inspire more of us to take on this work, and to support others who are doing it.
We’d also like to acknowledge that not everyone is in a position to “come out,” and safety should always be your first priority.