Coming out as having a mental illness

Head shot of EmilyBy: Emily Cooper, Legal Director

When I was 21 years old, I attended my first pride parade. It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a scorching hot day. My grandmother came with me, and I quickly realized that I had found my people.

Thankfully, it wasn’t too hard for me to come out as queer.

Coming out as having a mental illness was much harder.

For one, there is no parade. There’s no celebration where any amount of glitter would be flung into the air. Unlike with coming out of the rainbow closet, with mental illness there’s no distinct community led by people like me who were ready to celebrate our shared experience.

When you come out as experiencing a mental illness, all too often, you stand alone. Even though an estimated 18 percent of American adults experience some form of mental illness, people don’t come out as being among them very often.

I decided to come out a few years ago. It was after a professional experience where I came face-to-face with ugly misconceptions about people with mental illness. I figured that one powerful way to educate people in my field and others about people with mental illness is to share that I am one.

I talk with colleagues and friends about what my worst day looks like. I can see how it alters the distorted pictures that are lodged in their minds from reading misleading headlines where a person’s diagnosis is the focus.

Building a stronger community has to start somewhere. The first step is encouraging people to identify as being part of the mental health community and share their stories. I — and so many others — are waiting to say, “I get it” and “we do recover.”

I wonder if I would have gotten here so quickly if I didn’t learn how to be fiercely proud as queer.

*This content is excerpted from an op-ed by Emily that appeared in the West Linn Tidings.

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