Both sides of the divide: my experiences as an LGBT person and aspiring mental health professional
Submitted by Ace Hitchman
It’s the lot of adolescents and young adults to feel different in some way, or as if nobody understands them. I was, and still am to lesser degree, no different.
Very few people in my everyday life appreciate the love of collecting vinyl figurines or postcards, or why I watch ‘let’s play’ gaming videos, among other things. But when these differences or ‘quirks’ relate to the potential of being a differing romantic or sexual orientation or gender identity, suddenly being thrust into a relative minority among your peers is an altogether different experience.
I am a recent psychology graduate seeking a career in applied psychology. I am also a bi-romantic asexual and gender-fluid person, with my own experiences of (thankfully quite mild but none the less impactful) mental health struggles. I often wonder if it was a coincidence that these mental health struggles, or at least a greater self-acceptance that they were present, came at roughly the same time as I began to explore my romantic, and later sexual and gender, identity. As I’ve grown in my journey towards self-acceptance and community acceptance, I’ve started to realise that that might not entirely be the case. Even in (I stress very limited) professional experience that has only been in terms of volunteering for mental health textlines, and even then with such a small amount of professional exposure, I have noticed common themes that resonate with my own mental health experiences. Here’s why I think that may be.
First, there’s the internal shame to battle. I first started to realise I might be bisexual in some way (or as it would turn out to be, bi-romantic) after a school residential trip when I was nearly 16 years old and starting to feel some interesting feelings about one of my then friends. I thought I was a creep, or not really my friend’s friend and only using her to hide my own feelings and attractions, even from myself.
I hid all these feelings, even to the point of feeling uncomfortable seeing my openly lesbian friends kissing each other, not out of hate for them I now realise, but out of not wanting to recognise that in myself. I felt like a bad person, and distanced myself from these friends, and this negative self-dialogue combined with a self-imposed dearth of friends to confide in, didn’t help with the development of any issues related to low mood and social anxiety.
Five years later, upon first volunteering for Shout UK and in my experiences of online communities, I found people expressing similar issues. Feeling broken for being asexual. Feeling as if it’s wrong to like one or both sexes and/or individuals of multiple genders. Whilst this was incredibly validating, it is also disheartening to hear that so many people have shared experiences despite all the progress in LGBT acceptance across the world.
The never-ending process of coming out
Once the internal shame is battled enough to face it, there is then the entire process of coming out to tackle.
I first came out publicly, to my dad and to my brother, on my 21st birthday. This was after having already known that I was LGBT since I was 15, as mentioned above, but telling myself that it was a phase and that ‘if I still feel like this when I am 21 it must be true’. I then came out to them as gender-fluid in late 2020, after a long period of self-reflection during the first lockdown. Then came every single other family member. Then friends. Then, potentially, school and work circles.
Coming out is a never-ending experience and can become incredibly exhausting and mentally draining, especially if not done at the right pace. For some, it can even be incredibly dangerous. One of the most prominent LGBT related conversations I remember taking in my volunteering experience was with a person who had been bullied after coming out at school and had had parents who refused to accept them, causing them to feel unwanted and led to a huge mental health dip and thoughts of harming themselves.
Even if you are in a supportive environment, there will be missteps. It gets tiring to correct people on mine and other people’s pronouns, or to encourage the use of the word partner rather than defaulting to boyfriend due to my assumed gender. No matter how hard you try as well, there can end up being people missed out from your coming out. Even after mostly accepting myself and coming out several times, one of my biggest regrets is that my mother, who passed away when I was a young teenager, will never know who I ‘really’ am in respect to this part of me at least. Not least because I know that she would have been incredibly accepting of all aspects of myself.
I am personally not at this point yet, but a common way of managing the many feelings relating to LGBT identity is by seeking affirmation. This can be medically; for example, reassignment surgeries and transgender and non-binary people, or fertility treatment for individuals in same-sex relationships seeking to have children; or socially, from steps such as attending Pride events or joining an LGBT community, to more personal social steps such as the changing of a gendered name by deed poll or fostering or adopting a child.
As briefly mentioned above, I found a lot of validation in my friends from online communities, and would thoroughly recommend – be that in a professional or personal capacity – forming social groups and finding fellow LGBT people to share experiences with to anyone at any stage of their journey of self-discovery.
However, currently both in the UK and across the globe (most prominently right now in the United States), it doesn’t take being a professional, aspiring or otherwise, to see that constant denial at a legal level of your identity would have a major impact on the mental health of individuals. From a lack of legal recognition of non-binary identities in the UK, to bills being passed in various American states which severely limit discussions of LGBT-related topics in education and ban transgender young people from taking part in sports teams of the gender they feel most aligned with, limits at a legal level trickle down and lead to increases in hate crimes and decreases in available support. Lacking the support of individuals with similar experiences has then led to social isolation and depression. Even I have been feeling very down at the thought of the struggles of fellow LGBT people globally, despite being in a mostly supportive environment myself. Societal affirmation helps very much with personal affirmation and acceptance, and so greatly impacts on our mental health as LGBT people, even if we are not in countries affected by incredibly harsh laws.
There's still a long way to go
On the textline, a frequent point of conversation, for LGBT individuals and otherwise, was offering guidance on how to go about taking those first steps to seek mental health support. When I first brought up feelings of potential gender dysphoria in counselling, I was met with suggestions that I may not be in any way non-binary and that I could simply be feeling less female due to the previously mentioned loss of my mother and therefore lacking a female role model during the formative years of adolescence.
Whilst I am aware that this sentiment was likely well-meaning and am personally unaware of research into single parent upbringings among transgender and non-binary people and so there could be at least a link there, it felt quite invalidating in the initial moments, and I was on the verge of a panic attack. I have also heard similar experiences, from texters and friends feeling unable to seek help for gender dysphoria due to long waiting lists and unaffordable private care, or feeling unable to discuss topics related to gay relationships due to the fear of stigma or preferring to speak to an LGBT professional for the fact that they relate, and not being able to find any in their local area.
My own experiences and others are why I fully plan in my career to be a continued advocate for the inclusion of LGBT related topics in the curriculum of courses for mental health professionals and wider availability of charities and professionals with LGBT experience or expertise who can provide help.
On my own journey, I am almost on track. I have recently undergone CBT for anxiety and am on antidepressants. I have a supportive community of friends and a family who are trying their best. But it is, for me, society that has the biggest impact on my mental health, now that other more personal barriers have been knocked down. I am nervous to seek gender dysphoria treatment due to the waiting list and a feeling that others need it more, particularly in light of recent global news.
Society has come a long way in many ways. But there is still far more awareness needed on both the specific mental health needs of LGBT individuals, and how these self-discoveries may exacerbate existing mental health issues or lead to the development of new ones. That, in my career as a professional, is what I hope to do: to honour the generations of LGBT pioneers who came before us; for myself and my generation and all the LGBT young people who may have the same or similar experiences who come after me.