Coming out of the closet as a mental health survivor

Coming out of the closet as a mental health survivor In the spring, I attended a Public Service Alliance of Canada conference focused on access and accommodation for the mental health and physically challenged population.

In the spring, I attended a Public Service Alliance of Canada conference focused on access and accommodation for the mental health and physically challenged population.

I was struck by the lack of general knowledge and progressive support programming in this area.

This is an attempt to highlight the issues and demystify an area that afflicts so many individuals and yet is so often misunderstood.

I am convinced that mental health is the last bastion of stigmatization.

Prior to this notion, I held the belief coming out of the closet as a lesbian was by far the most difficult process due to stigmatization and discrimination associated with this minority status.

While some folks could find acceptance, some would simply give it lip service; but regardless, in Canada, due to human rights legislation or simply a shift of the mass majority opinion, there is a general acceptance of alternative or gay lifestyles.

That is, even if you didn’t agree with a gay lifestyle, it was simply no longer conventionally accepted to publicly admit homophobic beliefs.

But I was wrong, because, you see, the most trepidation I have felt, the most hesitancy has been around coming out as someone with mental health issues.

People still pause upon hearing this statement.

Individuals do not know how to react; and there is no common script outlining an acceptable form of behavioural reaction to such disclosure.

People are barely comfortable offering understanding through association, that of having an uncle or a friend who is struggling with mental health issues.


I believe this extreme awkwardness and discomfort is based on fear, in fact, two forms of fear.

The first fear is the commonly known fear based on ignorance – that which we don’t understand causes us fear.

Second, the fear of our shadow – that recognition in others may lead to recognition, or fear of it happening in one’s self.

Evidently, there is a need for a mass campaign dedicated to demystifying mental health issues.

As an initial step towards demystification, here are some facts:

1) The most common mental health issues are depression and anxiety. Of course, there are also the major mental disorders of bipolar and schizophrenia, but the epidemiology rate is much smaller in these two latter categories by comparison. Also, there are your everyday personality disorders and idiosyncrasies or quirks that are found in all of us. By nature, everyone has some neurosis.

2) Mental health challenges usually stem from trauma. As a society we shy away from trauma, even though each one of us carries a traumatic history, some more severe than others, due to neglectful upbringings or enduring major traumatic events, such as abuse, rape or natural disasters. Can we as a society shift to a culture of support for those who suffer more? Rather than dismiss when we are triggered in a situation and move to defensiveness and anger, can we reach out to each other and call it for what it is, a trigger, and offer support?

3) Just plain stress: With an increase in worldwide stressors, for example, economic, including cost-of-living increases, less time with families and communities, environmental deterioration, increase in information-processing demands and multitasking, we are asking more of individuals, and providing less social structural supports. The result is there are a lot more personal days and absences, due to stress. Just from a cost analysis, stress leaves are a high-budget item. For this financial reason alone, it behooves corporations to offer cultures supportive of people enduring stress.

4) Most people with mental health issues are not violent.

5) Mental health challenges are cyclical and not unpredictable, but based upon a common pattern of stress reactions.

6) People with mental health issues can get better with internal self-development and external social supports.

So, what can we do?

We can raise awareness and thereby reduce fear through open discussions, and presentations by reputable psychologists in the territory.

We can support each other. If someone is feeling off and can’t, for example, attend a large group meeting, step in. Or provide flexibility in work schedules, yoga and stretching breaks and space modification when needed.

Find out what is needed, usually not much, and help out.

You can develop a culture in workplaces of trauma-informed care – we are beginning to examine the social emotional development of our children and its impact in our schools, why not in our workforce?

We need to begin to demystify mental health by raising awareness and finding champions to advocate a more supportive workplace.

Only in this way can we reduce fear and thereby stigmatization.

Stacey Burnard